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The Death Penalty and Whether a Death Row Inmate Has the Right to a D.N.A. Test 


8/17/2020

As his execution date approached in the Fall of 2019, many Americans became aware of Rodney Reed’s case. Reed was convicted for the 1996 murder of Stacey Stites. A small amount of Reed’s sperm was found inside Stites’s body after her passing. Reed argues that this was the result of a consensual relationship. He has requested numerous times that the murder weapon be tested against his D.N.A., and each time he has been denied. The State of Texas also continues to ignore additional evidence that could potentially exonerate Reed. For now, he has been granted an indefinite stay of execution by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals while he remains incarcerated.

The United States Supreme Court declined to hear Rodney Reed’s case in February 2020. However, the Court emphasized that the evidence in Reed’s case “should not be brushed aside.” The trial court in Texas will hear the case in late 2020, which puts the issue back in the hands of the state where a statement from the Supreme Court in 2009 expressed it should be. If the Texas court’s decision does not uphold Reed’s rights, the Supreme Court may hear his case in the future.

Does an Inmate Have the Right to D.N.A. Testing?

According to the University of Michigan’s National Registry of Exonerations, more than 600 convictions in our criminal justice system have been overturned thanks to D.N.A. evidence. Dozens of those exonerated have been inmates on death row. When it comes to matters dealing with life or death, it stands to reason that D.N.A. testing should be standard practice. Sadly, it is not. In some unfortunate situations, the prosecution doesn’t want to present the necessary evidence for testing. The question as to whether or not defendants facing the death penalty or those inmates already sentenced to death have a legal right to testing their D.N.A. against relevant evidence is still unresolved. 

Supreme Court Ruling

According to the United States Supreme Court, the answer to this question on a federal level is a resounding “no.” In 2009, the Court stated that there is no constitutional right for a convicted individual to have access to evidence used by the prosecution so that D.N.A. testing can be done. Although the Court acknowledges that D.N.A. evidence is compelling and useful to both law enforcement and the defense, they determined that it should be up to the states to independently resolve this issue, since the state has already found the inmate guilty. 

The Court highlighted that 46 states and the federal government already had laws in place that specifically address a defendant’s access to D.N.A. evidence. The Supreme Court held its ground, expressing that unless a state’s procedures are fundamentally inadequate to protect a convict’s rights, federal courts should not intervene. However, convicted offenders on death row have the right to consult with their Philadelphia criminal defense lawyer to determine what steps can be taken to receive D.N.A. testing. 

Options for Post-Conviction D.N.A. Analysis

As previously stated, most states have policies and procedures in place that allow for D.N.A. testing after a conviction under certain circumstances. Inmates need to be able to provide conclusive proof that the new D.N.A. evidence would have changed the outcome of their first trial. In Pennsylvania, state statute allows anyone convicted of a criminal offense to apply for post-conviction D.N.A. testing. The law was amended in 2018 to allow testing access to:

  • Individuals who had pled guilty to apply for testing
  • Individuals who are no longer under state supervision to apply
  • Individuals to whom D.N.A. technology was only available after their trial

Additionally, individuals are allotted 1 year instead of 60 days to apply for relief with D.N.A. testing results. 

Keep in mind that while a convicted inmate can regain their freedom and even their life through D.N.A. testing, the State of Pennsylvania does not provide compensation to people who are exonerated after conviction.

Preserving Crucial D.N.A. Evidence

The same Pennsylvania statute mandates that when a convicted individual submits a petition for post-conviction D.N.A. testing pursuant to the PCRA, any evidence from their case for criminal offenses will be preserved. Once a court order is received, the state is required to preserve the evidence until the proceedings are complete. A Philadelphia criminal defense attorney can help ensure that the law is properly followed.

Lawsuits for Violating Civil Rights in D.N.A. Testing Refusals

In 2011, the Supreme Court determined that a Texas death row inmate could sue a prosecutor under federal civil rights laws if that prosecutor refused to allow D.N.A. testing of evidence. This action helped pave the way for other inmates to sue for access to D.N.A. evidence that might exonerate them. According to the Court, “a post-conviction claim for D.N.A. testing is properly pursued in a § 1983 action.”

How a Philadelphia Criminal Defense Attorney Can Help

If you were convicted and received the death penalty or another prison sentence without the use of D.N.A. evidence, a Philadelphia criminal defense lawyer can assist you in fighting for your freedom. Sometimes laws are not properly followed by a prosecutor involved in your case or the state makes mistakes that prevent you from receiving the D.N.A. testing you deserve. 

You need an attorney who is well acquainted with these laws and can use that knowledge to exonerate you. There is no time to waste if you think D.N.A. evidence could help you. You only have a limited amount of time to make this request. With the help of an attorney, all the necessary steps can be taken to request the use of D.N.A. evidence to possibly exonerate you of your charges. This way, you know that everything possible is being done to prove your innocence.

Attorney Lauren A. Wimmer has represented dozens of individuals who have been convicted and wish to pursue relief through the Post-Conviction Relief Act. Contact us for a confidential, free criminal defense case consultation with Philadelphia criminal defense attorney Lauren A. Wimmer today. Call Wimmer Criminal Defense Law at 215-712-1212 or use our confidential online contact form. We can be reached at any time of the day or night.