Fernandes’ DNA bill approved by House
BOSTON – A bill by a local legislator that could help wrongfully convicted criminals go free has passed the House unanimously.
The bill, which would give those convicted an opportunity to access DNA evidence to help overturn their convictions, was approved Wednesday.
State Rep. John Fernandes, D-Milford, co-sponsored the bill, which passed in the Senate in July.
“It’s our obligation to get it right and help the people in jail who are wrongly convicted,” Fernandes said yesterday. “One day, one week, one year, is too long for anybody innocent to be in prison.”
Under the bill, which goes to Gov. Deval Patrick for final approval before it can become law, someone serving a prison sentence could get access to DNA evidence if they win a motion before a judge that shows the evidence could result in acquittal.
Those seeking DNA evidence would need to meet a set of criteria first. They would have to show that the evidence is still available and reliable and that it will have a “material effect on the outcome of the case,” Fernandes said.
“If new technology allows us to undo mistakes, then it’s important for us to give the wrongly convicted access to evidence and get the innocent out of jail,” Fernandes said.
Massachusetts is one of two states that does not allow post-conviction DNA evidence to be tested, Fernandes said.
Across the nation, 280 cases have been reversed due to DNA evidence, including 17 cases of people on death row, he said.
Fernandes said the attorney general’s office supports his bill, which has also been backed by law enforcement, district attorneys and bar associations across Massachusetts.
The Boston Bar Association’s Task Force on Preventing Wrongful Convictions helped draft the bill and found sponsors in the House and Senate.
Martin Murphy, a partner at Foley Hoag who is on the task force, said he was “thrilled” the bill has moved forward.
“For those few people who are wrongly convicted, this bill will make all the difference in the world,” said Murphy, a former Middlesex County first assistant district attorney. “It will change people’s lives for the better, and that’s very gratifying.”
Murphy credited Fernandes with being instrumental in moving the bill through the House.
“Getting something to the House floor is one of the most difficult steps, and (Fernandes) really moved the bill along and had the House leadership seriously look at it,” Murphy said.
Peter Elikann, a criminal defense attorney and member of the Massachusetts Bar Association, said the legislation “seems like a no-brainer.”
“Who wouldn’t be in favor of this?” Elikann said. “It doesn’t just help free the innocent. It also helps find the real perpetrator who is still out there and who is a danger to society. This will help with public safety.”
Elikann said opponents of the bill have a wrong perception of the legislation.
“Some of the critics might say the bill is soft on crime, and that is just absurd,” Elikann said. “It is the complete opposite. You would get the real criminal in jail. Not having this legislation would be hurtful to society.”
Joseph Early, Worcester County’s district attorney, supports the legislation.
“Any time we’re exonerating the innocent, that’s good public safety and good government,” Early said.
Early said he doesn’t want to open the door to everyone, though.
“We don’t want to clog up the courts with baseless claims,” he said. “We want to make sure there are proper provisions. We don’t want victims to have to relive the horrors of violent crimes.”