Law allowing DNA testing of evidence for prisoners close to passing


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Reported by: Ian Silver
Updated: 3/28/2013 9:18 am Published: 3/27/2013 5:52 pm


In a country where freedoms are treasured, having ones freedom stolen, ironically, by our system of justice would be a crime.

But it's a crime that happens more than most Americans would like to admit.

Now Oklahoma lawmakers are working to pass a law that would allow prisoners convicted of violent crimes or sentenced to 25 years in the Department of Corrections to ask the state to do DNA testing on evidence from their case to prove their innocence.

One Tulsan can measure the importance of such a law down to the day.

"Thirteen years, 11 months and 26 days," Arvin McGee said.

That's how long McGee spent in Oklahoma prisons after being convicted of rape, even though he didn't do it.

"When they finally gave me the date and time, I said that's impossible for me to do," McGee said. "He said 'why is that?' I said 'because I just got out of the hospital with a hernia. So, it was hard for me to throw somebody over my left or right shoulder when I had stitches in my side.'"

But the victim picked McGee out of a lineup, and after three trials he ended up behind bars.

After years of research, he contacted the Innocence Project based in New York City. The group helped get McGee's DNA tested, which proved he was an innocent man.

"I just went to my cell and just thanked God, just cried, just thanked God that finally somebody heard my voice."

But for all those years he was locked up, the real rapist was still out there. Eventually, the DNA test proved the real rapist was also behind bars, convicted of another crime he had committed after the rape McGee was convicted of.

But McGee is certain many other innocent people are in Oklahoma prisons.

"Out of 1,500 inmates [at the prison I was in], I'd say close to about maybe like 15 percent [are innocent]," he said.

Tulsa County Chief Public Defender Jack Zanerhaft thinks the number might be a bit lower.

"It's hard to predict the numbers involved," Zanerhaft said. "But I'll say this: if one person goes free because of this new legislation, it absolutely would be worth it."

Under the proposed bill, postconviction DNA tests would be paid for by the inmate themselves. If they are unable to pay, and qualify for a public defender the test would be funded by the state.
 
Officials with Tulsa County's crime lab told FOX23 News such tests are usually often funded by federal grants, but given the sequester, they say it's unclear whether such funds would be available, which could cause a backlog at the lab.

But Zanerhaft says it's an investment by the public that must be made.

"This country was founded, people lost their lives in defense of freedom and liberty," Zanerhaft said. "And it's exactly this sort of thing that should make every citizen proud and make every citizen support this type of legislation."

Oklahoma is the only state in the country that hasn't already passed similar legislation.

The Postconviction DNA Act has cleared the Oklahoma Senate Judiciary Committee without objection, and will have to be approved by the full senate and signed by the governor to become law. 

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