SALEM, Ore. (AP) — There have been almost 500 exonerations nationally based on DNA evidence of people wrongfully convicted of crimes, but none in Oregon, where the majority of post-conviction motions for DNA testing are denied by Oregon courts.
On Tuesday, the Oregon Senate took a step toward lowering the barriers after it unanimously passed a bill that modifies how a person convicted of a felony initiates proceedings to obtain DNA testing. The bill now goes to the House.
Sen. Kim Thatcher (R-Keizer), one of the bill’s sponsors, stood on the Senate floor Tuesday and asker other lawmakers to imagine driving to work, their spouse is killed, and they’re charged for the crime.
“The worst criminal justice nightmare is occurring in your life because you are going to be going to prison for life for something you did not do. Not only did you lose the love of your life, you are being blamed for her death, and the jury found you guilty,” Thatcher said.
She said that was the case of Michael Morton, who spent nearly 25 years in Texas prisons before DNA testing pointed to the real murderer. Under Oregon’s current testing standards, Morton would not have been allowed to have the DNA tests done, Thatcher said.
Morton himself traveled from Texas to appear before the Senate judiciary committee on Feb. 11. He described the gruesome scene in his bedroom where his wife had been beaten to death in their bed in 1986 after he had left for work.
“It wasn’t too long after the funeral that the sheriff showed up at my doorstep and arrested me,” Morton said.
He was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. Although the state resisted, and as testing developed to reveal more refined results, Morton’s legal team had a list of items tested until they got to the last and seemingly least important item: a blood-stained bandanna found near Morton’s home.
“It changed everything,” Morton told the senate panel. It had his wife Christine’s DNA comingled with another man’s, who was identified through a DNA database. Morton was released from prison. The other man was convicted of the murder and in the 1988 killing of another woman.
“I don’t want what happened to me to happen to you,” Morton told the Oregon senators, saying that positions of privilege or having a spotless record do not save anyone from being wrongly accused.
Steven Wax, legal director of the Oregon Innocence Project which championed the bill, told lawmakers the measure mirrors other state statutes by allowing motions for law enforcement to produce an inventory of existing evidence. Without it, a person petitioning a court and his lawyers may not know whether items are still in government custody, disbursed to other entities, or have been destroyed, Wax said.
The measure also eliminates the “illogical” standard that a person convicted of a felony show innocence before the DNA testing is allowed, Wax said.
Janis Puracal of the Forensic Justice Project said most post-conviction motions for DNA testing are denied by Oregon courts.
“We will not know how many wrongful convictions may exist in Oregon until we really look for them,” she said.
Oregon Department of Justice officials said in written testimony that the bill pursues a worthy cause but complained that the bill sometimes uses untested language which has no equivalent in other jurisdictions.
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