Weinberg Bill to Expand Access to DNA Analysis in Criminal Cases Now Law

Senator Loretta Weinberg, D-Bergen, speaks about Women's Equality Day in the New Jersey Senate Chambers during a voting session.

Will Assist Wrongfully Convicted, Aid In Identifying True Perpetrator

 

TRENTON – Legislation sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg to enable more individuals charged with or convicted of crimes to gain access to DNA analysis resources that would allow them to prove their innocence is now law.

“We know that DNA testing has helped to exonerate wrongfully convicted people across the country and here in New Jersey,” said Senator Weinberg (D-Bergen). “Expanding access to DNA analysis to those who are no longer incarcerated will allow people who have served their time, but are still living with the nightmare of a wrongful conviction, to prove their innocence. This expansion will also assist in identifying the true perpetrators of the crimes for which these individuals were charged.”

There have been 333 DNA exonerations in the United States, according to information from the Innocence Project, including a number of cases in New Jersey. In one New Jersey case, Rodney Roberts, of Newark, served seven years in prison for kidnapping and rape. He also faced indefinite civil commitment as a result of his conviction. Roberts was released in March 2014 after DNA testing established he could not have been the perpetrator of the crime for which he was convicted. Had Roberts not been in state custody, he would not have been eligible for post-conviction DNA testing to establish his innocence.

Under previous state law, post-conviction DNA testing was only available to individuals that remained incarcerated. The new law (S1365) will allow those who have been convicted but are not currently serving a prison term to petition the court for DNA testing. A court may only consider the request if the petitioner demonstrates just cause. For those who already served their sentences, a court may find that just cause exists when there is a “significant likelihood” that if the result of the DNA testing were favorable to the person, a motion for a new trial based upon newly discovered evidence would be granted. The law sets a lower standard for a person serving a term of imprisonment at the time the motion is made with the court for forensic DNA testing. In this situation, just cause could be found if there is a “reasonable probability” that a motion for a new trial based upon newly discovered evidence would be granted.

The law also expands state law pertaining to the use of DNA evidence in criminal matters to authorize courts to direct law enforcement officials to request that the NJ State Police Office of Forensic Services DNA Laboratory or other nationally recognized laboratory involved in the matter submit crime scene evidence to the FBI’s Combined DNA Index System (CODIS) for a search to determine whether the evidence matches someone other than the defendant or the victim – either a known individual or a DNA profile obtained from an unsolved crime. CODIS is a database of DNA samples collected from offenders nationwide.

The law also establishes a procedure to allow a defendant, or an individual already convicted of a crime, to request the upload of a forensic DNA analysis conducted by an accredited private lab to the national database.

 “Expanded access will benefit those wrongfully convicted, but it will also aid crime victims and their families who in exoneration cases are often forced to relive the tragedies they experienced after learning the real perpetrator may still be free,” said Senator Weinberg. “The expansion of the use of DNA testing will assist in identifying the person who actually committed the crime, helping to provide closure to loved ones’ families while also protecting the public from further harm.”

In nearly half of the nation’s 330 DNA exonerations, the real perpetrator was subsequently identified, often through the use of CODIS. In many instances, the person identified as the real perpetrator had gone on to commit additional crimes—totaling more than 30 murders and 70 sexual assaults—while the innocent person sat behind bars for a crime he or she did not commit.

The Assembly approved the bill 71-1-2 in June. The Senate approved the bill by a vote of 36-2. It was signed by the governor on Monday. It will take effect on the first day of the fourth month following enactment.