House Expands DNA Evidence Use

Rape victims and convicted felons would both have greater access to DNA (search) testing under legislation the House passed Wednesday.

The bill would provide $755 million in grants over the next five years to clear the backlog of some 350,000 untested DNA samples in rape evidence kits nationwide, and another $500 million for training and improvements at crime laboratories.

Similar legislation is stalled in the Senate but negotiators there have been struggling to reach an accord before Congress adjourns at the end of the week. The House vote was 393-14.

Rep. William Delahunt, D-Mass., said the bill is aimed at repairing the two sides of injustice when mistakes happen.

"Think of the human costs when an innocent person is executed or spends long years in jail," he said. "Imagine the scars when a victim waits years to know the identity of their assailant."

House Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., accused the Justice Department (search) of being obstinate and unreasonable in its refusal to compromise on the legislation.

Lawmakers, he said, "bent over backwards to try to satisfy their concerns. No matter how much we bent, nothing could satisfy them."

Justice officials have complained that the bill could limit the use of DNA testing currently being done, and may make it more difficult for states trying to prosecute death penalty cases.

Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Az., said he was concerned the bill would allow inmates who pleaded guilty more than five years ago to ask for new trials, traumatizing victims and making it difficult for prosecutors to try the case again.

Sensenbrenner said the bill puts the burden on prosecutors to show a DNA test should not be granted during the first five years after conviction, but after five years the burden is on the defense to show it should be conducted.

The House passed similar legislation nearly a year ago. In an effort to win its Senate approval, the House this time added a victims' rights measure (search) that the Senate passed in April. It provides $155 million for victims' assistance program.

Victims groups have pushed for the bill, which was inspired by two people: Kirk Bloodsworth of Maryland, who was cleared by DNA testing after spending nine years in prison, including two on death row, on rape and murder charges; and Debbie Smith, a Virginia resident, who waited six years for DNA evidence to identify the man who raped her.