Group of Exonerated Convicts Asks Justice Department to Help Scour Old DNA Evidence

Marvin Anderson and other men exonerated by DNA evidence said Wednesday they want Attorney General Michael Mukasey to start doling out federal money to help states analyze evidence that led to other convictions.

"It's fear," Anderson, of Hanover, Va., said of the bureaucratic resistance to clearing the way for such analyses. DNA evidence exonerated Anderson in 2001 of a rape conviction, after he was sentenced to 210 years in prison and served 15. "No one wants to admit a mistake has been made."

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy said he will grill the new attorney general next week on why some $14 million Congress has set aside for those analyses has not been spent.

Congress made the money available nearly four years ago as part of sweeping legislation named for Kirk Bloodsworth, the first person in the United States exonerated from a death row crime through DNA analysis as evidence.

"The bottom line: DOJ is denying people with claims of innocence with the chance to prove it," Bloodsworth, said in a statement submitted to the committee. Like Anderson, he attended the hearing.

Bloodsworth was released in 1993 after DNA evidence cleared his conviction in the murder of a 9-year-old girl.

Altogether, more than 120 people have been freed from death row, Leahy said -- a number that points to the need to tighten forensics practices and give innocent people the resources to prove it.

Other witnesses told stories of being turned down by the Justice Department for the grants, sometimes without explanation.

"I expect to hear that the department now intends to implement the law and to solicit and award the millions of dollars of Bloodsworth grants that have been delayed these past years," Leahy, D-Vt., said during a Senate hearing, referring to Mukasey's first appearance as attorney general before the panel next week.

John Morgan, deputy director of the Justice Department's National Institute of Justice, told the panel the agency wants to see the grant money reach the states, but the law had constrained the states from applying properly for the grants. Leahy and the others scoffed at that explanation, saying the department chose to not help the applicants.

Whatever the reason for the hangup, Morgan said a newly passed appropriations law for this year goes a long way to fixing those problems, Morgan said. The agency was sending out a request for states to apply for the grants, and hoped to award the money this fiscal year, he said.

Leahy called Wednesday's session in part to respond to Justice Department Inspector General Glenn Fine's report last week that more broadly found that lax oversight by the department caused charges of negligence and misconduct at some police forensic evidence labs to remain unchecked. Critics said the gaps raised questions about the accuracy of DNA evidence used to convict or clear suspects in criminal cases.

The audit found the Justice Department doesn't require allegations of wrongdoing at state and local police labs to be reported to independent investigators. Moreover, 34 percent of independent investigators charged with overseeing the labs lacked the authority, ability or resources to do so, according to the report.