Viewpoints: New law will fix handling of DNA testing cases

On Nov. 24, 2004, a young girl walked along a busy San Diego street. At an underpass, a man came up behind her, grabbed her and told her not to scream. She fought her attacker, managing to escape. At home, the girl called police and placed her clothing in a plastic bag. She began to think that her attacker was probably a man who had been staring at her from a truck. The victim described her attacker as a white male about 5-foot-9, 155 pounds, in his 20s, with facial hair.

Initially, police had no leads. Later, someone saw a truck matching the girl’s description. It belonged to the stepfather of Uriah Courtney, who then became a suspect. Police conducted lineups with Courtney – white, 5-foot-10, 160 pounds, in his 20s, with a goatee – but the victim could not identify him. At trial, however, the victim testified she was sure of both the truck and of Courtney. A jury found him guilty, and he was sentenced to life in prison.

In 2010, the California Innocence Project began investigating the case. The victim’s clothing was resubmitted for DNA testing, revealing a profile that was not Courtney’s. That profile was run through the FBI’s national DNA database and matched to a local man living just three miles from the crime scene. Courtney was set free.

His case was a tremendous win for criminal justice. It showed how DNA testing should work – with cooperation from prosecutors and law enforcement to find evidence and run DNA profiles against the database.

Unfortunately, however, most DNA cases don’t go so smoothly.

Individuals are denied basic information about whether evidence exists and are denied testing because prosecutors and courts don’t understand the legal standard or how it should be applied. Courts deny access to the DNA database, meaning innocent people stay in prison, and the guilty remain at large. Evidence is destroyed in as little as three months, closing the door on DNA testing and ensuring that crimes are never solved.

California’s laws mean that many people who want to use DNA to establish their innocence are denied testing for reasons that defy common sense. We needed to change this.

Senate Bill 980, authored by Sen. Ted Lieu, D-Redondo Beach, will streamline the post-conviction DNA process, making it more consistent across counties. SB 980 was approved by the Legislature last month and signed Thursday by Gov. Jerry Brown.

Now, innocent individuals who find themselves in the same situation as Courtney will be able to prove their innocence more easily, saving California millions and ensuring that the right people are behind bars.

Over the past two decades, DNA technology has revolutionized the nation’s criminal justice system. DNA has become the foremost technique for conclusively identifying and excluding criminal suspects in cases where biological material is left at a crime scene.

As of June 2014, the FBI database had produced more than 250,000 hits that helped in nearly 239,000 investigations. So far, there have been about 320 exonerations through DNA testing; in nearly half those cases, the true perpetrator was identified.

Thankfully, justice was served for Uriah Courtney. With SB 980, more innocent people will be free from prison, and more guilty people will be identified, prosecuted and convicted for their crimes.