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editorial _ herald- 3/28/01

March 27, 2001

DNA plan could simplify post-conviction testing



No one with any sense of justice would deny an accused person the means to prove their innocence, but Pennsylvania lawmakers say their state needs a system to govern how DNA tests are applied and used in court.

We applaud that sentiment, but as the use of this technology becomes more widespread, lawmakers must also look again at whether defendants can be compelled to provide DNA samples without violating the U.S. Constitution's protections against self-incrimination.

The DNA issue arose when the Senate Judiciary Committee's chairman, Stewart J. Greenleaf, R-Montgomery, introduced a bill to allow for defendants to petition for a new trial if genetic testing yielded new information that might clear them.

In support of the bill, the committee heard emotional testimony from Willie Nesmith, a 38-year-old man who spent 15 years in prison on a rape conviction until a DNA test showed he was innocent.

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But for every person wrongly convicted, there will be another who uses the DNA testing law to delay sentencing, said Attorney General Mike Fisher. Fisher told The Associated Press that valid convictions should not lightly be overturned.

The other issue that promises more controversy, in our view, are the proposals made periodically to create genetic databases with material gathered from people not even accused of crimes.

Proponents of such a system argue that citizens have nothing to fear as long as they obey the law, while opponents say it would violate the Constitution's provision against forced self-incrimination. Juries would also have to be instructed not to infer that suspects who refuse DNA testing are guilty.

Sound like science fiction? Researchers are already looking at genetic "markers" that might indicate a tendency toward future criminal behavior. Those who want to free the wrongly convicted need to take care that in the process they don't create a system that would allow government to intrude into every citizen's private life.

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