TRENTON – Legislation sponsored by Senator Loretta Weinberg and Senator Nilsa Cruz-Perez that would help victims of violent crimes and those who were wrongfully convicted, by requiring the preservation of biological evidence in criminal cases while they remain unsolved or while the person convicted of the crime remains in custody, is now law.
“DNA evidence has been used to solve crimes years after they were committed, aiding victims and their families. In cases with wrongful convictions, biological evidence has helped individuals serving time for a crime they did not commit and assisted law enforcement in finding the actual perpetrator,” said Senator Weinberg (D-Bergen). “It is crucial that biological evidence is preserved. It can help to solve old crimes, enhance public safety, and settle claims of innocence.”
To date, 351 people in the United States have been exonerated by DNA testing, including 20 who served time on death row. None of the exonerations would have been possible had the biological evidence not been available to test, according to The Innocence Project, a national organization dedicated to exonerating wrongfully convicted individuals. Had the evidence been destroyed, tainted, contaminated, mislabeled, or otherwise corrupted, the innocence of these individuals would never have come to light, the organization reported.
“Advances in DNA testing have allowed scores of criminal cases to be solved and also resulted in the exoneration of hundreds who were wrongfully convicted,” said Senator Cruz-Perez (D-Camden and Gloucester). “This work cannot be done if the evidence in question has not been appropriately preserved. Setting guidelines for the preservation of evidence is critical to bringing justice to victims and their families, and to clearing those wrongfully accused.”
The law (S1032) will require every law enforcement or prosecuting agency to preserve any biological evidence secured in relation to an investigation or prosecution of a crime while that crime remains unsolved or while the person convicted of that crime remains in custody. The law also requires the preservation of biological evidence as long as additional co-defendants convicted of the same crime remain in custody, meaning incarcerated, civilly committed, on parole or probation, or subject to sex offender registration.
“Biological evidence” is defined as any item that contains blood, semen, hair, saliva, skin tissue, fingernail scrapings, bone, bodily fluids or other identifiable biological material that was collected as part of the criminal investigation or may reasonably be used to incriminate or exculpate any person for the offense. The contents of a sexual assault examination kit also constitute biological evidence.
Defendants could submit written requests for an inventory of biological evidence that has been preserved in connection with their cases, as well as a request in writing for a copy of that inventory. Biological evidence could be destroyed before the crime is solved or the person is released from custody under certain limited conditions if proper notice is given to the appropriate parties.
The Senate approved the bill by a vote of 24-2. The Assembly approved it 70-0-1. The governor signed it today.