Leahy says Justice Department is ignoring DNA program

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(Host) Senator Patrick Leahy says the Department of Justice is ignoring a law passed by Congress that would help convicts prove their innocence through DNA testing.

VPR’s Charles Davis reports from Capitol Hill.

(Davis) The grant program was designed to help state officials pursue DNA testing in cases where it could prove guilt or innocence. However, three years after Congress approved the $8 million dollar program, Justice officials haven’t awarded any of it. Leahy says that’s inexcusable.

(Leahy) "I think it’s wrong to say, ‘sure, we support a bill,’ as they did when it was going through. The president signs it, and with a wink and a nod they don’t follow the law. For some reason this administration, especially this Justice Department, feels they don’t have to follow the law. I think that’s wrong."

(Davis) To qualify, states are required to show that they have a practice of preserving criminal evidence.

But that’s not quite how the Department of Justice has interpreted it. While similar grant programs merely require a few signatures to certify compliance, not so for the DNA testing grant. For that, the department requires a state’s attorney general to write a formal legal opinion describing in detail how their state qualifies.

(Saloom) "It seems to me that the Department of Justice has chosen to transform the congressional requirement for these grant programs into something as stringent as possible."

(Davis) That’s Stephen Saloom, the policy director at the Innocence Project, which works to use DNA testing to free those falsely imprisoned. He’s careful not to say the Department of Justice purposely put up obstacles to the grant, but he says it certainly appears that way.

Justice officials say the problem isn’t with them, but with the law itself. They say it is written in such a complicated way that it’s almost impossible for states to qualify.

Congressman Peter Welch doesn’t buy it.

(Welch) "What can be all that complicated about allowing states to have grant money to conduct DNA tests on questions of innocence? … It’s not rocket science, so it sounds like it’s stonewalling."

(Davis) The Department of Justice’s interpretation of the law prevented all but three states from even applying for the grant. All were rejected.

Officials for those states say they were never given a reason why, and likely won’t bother applying again. And that angers Welch.

(Welch) "It’s outrageous. I mean Senator Leahy’s whole point is about justice, and DNA is a tool that can be used to determine, conclusively, whether somebody’s guilty or their innocent."

(Davis) Senator Leahy says he thinks he may be able to work out a solution with the Department of Justice.

But he’s also threatening to withhold funding for the entire department unless officials meet his demands.

Justice officials in Washington did not respond to several calls for comment.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Charles Davis on Capitol Hill.


AP Photo/Toby Talbot

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