WASHINGTON – The Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday passed a five-year, $1 billion bill that would provide greater access to DNA (search) testing in rape cases and for convicted felons who claim innocence.
The 11-7 vote came after lengthy debate on more than 20 amendments over three sessions in the past two weeks. All amendments were defeated.
Urging senators to move quickly to pass the bill, Committee Chairman Sen. Orrin Hatch (search), R-Utah, said negotiations can continue on possible changes that could improve the bill and make it more amenable to opponents. The House has already passed similar legislation.
Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz (search)., offered the bulk of the amendments, detailing concerns raised by the Justice Department that the bill could limit the use of DNA testing already done, and make it more difficult for states trying to prosecute death penalty (search) cases.
The measure provides for a $100 million voluntary grant program that states could tap if they take steps to improve the quality of legal representation provided to indigent defendants in capital cases.
The bulk of the funding in the bill would provide grants to clear the backlog of some 350,000 untested DNA samples in rape evidence kits nationwide.
Watching the committee debate was Kirk Bloodsworth (search) of Maryland, who was convicted of rape and first-degree murder and sentenced to death in 1984. After nine years in prison, including two on death row, he was released after a DNA match cleared him and implicated another man.
"Kirk is here today because he knows better than anyone in this room that we do need this bill," said Sen. Patrick Leahy (search), D-Vt. "I understand the need for finality in criminal cases. But there can be no time limit on innocence."
It was unclear Tuesday when the bill might come up for debate and a vote by the full Senate.