Mt. Vernon Register-News

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February 11, 2013

Senate unanimous: DNA bill ‘matter of justice’

FRANKFORT —  The Kentucky Senate unanimously passed a bill Monday that would allow those in prison to seek DNA testing to prove their innocence.

Senate Bill 23’s sponsor, Sen. John Schickel, R-Union, said the bill “is a matter of justice.”

According to the Innocence Project, a national organization affiliated with the Benjamin Cardoza School of Law, Yeshiva University in New York, 302 serving felony prison time have been proven innocent using DNA testing.

Currently under Kentucky law, only those on death row can seek to have their convictions overturned using the DNA testing technology.

Schickel’s bill makes a concession to prosecutors who want to exclude those who plead guilty or take an Alford Plea, something Schickel said he’d prefer not to do, but was willing to accept because passage of the amended bill is a significant improvement over the current law.

Some senators, like Robin Webb, D-Grayson, objected to the change, but in the end voted for the bill for the same reason – that it nonetheless represents a major improvement. Webb argues an Alford Plea is maintaining one’s innocence.

(An Alford Plea allows a defendant to avoid pleading guilty while recognizing the weight of the evidence is likely enough to convict him. Usually in such cases, an Alford Plea has been negotiated in return for a lighter sentence.)

In explaining her floor vote Monday, Webb said the bill “is not perfect but it is a great, great start.”

Another Democratic Senator, Kathy Stein of Lexington, shares Webb’s concerns, but like Webb voted for Schickel’s bill. She said it serves the interests of justice.

“If we have a person in prison who is innocent of a crime, that means the true perpetrator is still on the loose,” Stein said.

Senate President Robert Stivers, R-Manchester, also spoke in favor of the bill, noting he was an assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney for the first five years of his legal career.

Others, like the state’s chief Public Advocate, Ed Monahan, and Joe Blaney of the Innocence Project, contend there are times when an innocent defendant nonetheless agrees to plead guilty – for a variety of reasons, usually to avoid an even longer or harsher sentence.

Rep. Johnny Bell, D-Glasgow, has a similar bill in the House which does not include the exceptions of guilty or Alford pleas. He has sponsored such a bill in the past but couldn’t get it passed in the Senate.

Bell said Monday afternoon his bill will receive a hearing Wednesday before the House Judiciary Committee. He said he understands prosecutors concerns about some guilty pleas but he doesn’t understand the exception for Alford Pleas.

The final Senate vote was 38-0 in favor of the bill.

RONNIE ELLIS writes for CNHI News Service and is based in Frankfort. Reach him at rellis@cnhi.com. Follow CNHI News Service stories on Twitter at www.twitter.com/cnhifrankfort.

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