Our Voice: Law should ensure DNA evidence is not thrown out

When the judicial system gets it wrong and an innocent person is sent to prison, sometimes the only chance of getting it right on appeal lies in the DNA samples collected at the crime scene.

Unfortunately, once there is a conviction, DNA evidence in Washington state can be thrown away because there are no rules that require it be preserved.

A proposal working its way through the Legislature would change that. It already earned approval in the House and is waiting for action in the Senate.

The bill would require DNA samples collected in felony sex crimes or violent offenses to be kept through the length of the offender’s sentence. In cold cases, where no one is charged or convicted, the DNA would be preserved for 99 years or until the statute of limitations runs out for that particular crime, whichever comes first.

Considering DNA evidence might be the only way the wrongfully convicted have to prove their innocence on appeal, it makes sense it should be available.

The proposal is being pushed by members of the Northwest branch of the Innocence Project, a national nonprofit formed in 1992 and dedicated to helping prisoners who could be proven innocent through DNA testing.

Nationally, since the organization began its efforts, 325 wrongfully convicted people, including 18 on death row, have been exonerated by using DNA evidence.

Statewide, one of the more prominent exonerations came in 2010 in Clark County when Alan G. Northrup and Larry W. Davis were cleared 17 years after they were convicted of a crime they did not commit. DNA samples were collected at the crime scene in 1993, but were too small to be tested at the time.

Once technology improved, the samples were tested and it was determined none of them matched Northrup and Davis. A judge then vacated their convictions.

Lara Zarowsky, policy director for the Innocence Project Northwest at the University of Washington Law School, said the group found that out of 25 cases in 2011-2013 where DNA evidence could have been a factor in a prisoner’s appeal, eight samples had been destroyed and one was lost.

Many people assume that in our advanced technological age that all DNA evidence is tested before a trial, but that is not reality. Tests cost money and if prosecutors can make their case by other means, the results of DNA samples often are not used — especially if police are certain they arrested the right person.

When innocent people are sent to prison for crimes they did not commit, it means the actual perpetrator is still posing a threat to society. This bill would give the wrongly accused a better chance of proving their innocence and cause to go after the true criminal. It just makes sense.