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A change to Oregon law that might open doors for the wrongfully convicted

On Behalf of | Feb 9, 2020 | Appeals, Post-conviction Relief |

The United States justice system stands to protect the people, but it is far from perfect. During criminal trials, sometimes the court finds an innocent person guilty. This type of mistake has an unspeakably devastating impact on the people on the receiving end of wrongful convictions.

When someone is wrongfully convicted, they are imprisoned for a crime they didn’t commit. Prisoners have the right to ask for a review of DNA evidence relevant to their case, but this process is long, arduous, and often they find their review requests denied. But a recent amendment to the law that guides the appeal process now makes things easier for prisoners requesting them.

The amendments made to post-conviction DNA testing

There are several laws that guides the DNA review process, all of which were reviewed by the Oregon Senate in 2019 through Senate Bill 321. The amendments focused on correcting gate-keeping language in the original law and changes the overall process for evidence processing in criminal court cases.

The previous law left evidence gathering largely at the discretion of the court system and some courts were hesitant to lawfully order labs to follow any specific protocol. This law gives a new mandatory procedure to forensic evidence labs. Now, if key evidence in a criminal trial has a DNA profile that doesn’t match the accused, this DNA profile is submitted to the Combined DNA Index System (CODIS) to find the identity of the perpetrator. This was not a mandatory step before this amendment.

How does this change things for wrongfully convicted inmates?

Previously, inmates who was petitioning for DNA evidence testing needed to provide assurance that this DNA evidence would prove their innocence. If the petitioner could not supply a compelling enough reason for the evidence to be tested, then they could be denied.

Brittney Plesser, a staff attorney at the Oregon Innocence Project explained it perfectly: “You were sort of required to prove innocence to be able to prove your innocence through testing.”

With the new statute taking effect in 2020, the standards for DNA testing have been changed for all pending and future criminal trials. Inmates that were convicted prior to this statute taking effect can now request post-conviction DNA testing that adheres to this higher standard of evidence processing without having hard proof that it will prove their innocence.