Leahy urges Senate to take up DNA testing bill

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(Host) Senator Patrick Leahy is urging members of the Senate to take up his DNA legislation before the clock runs out on this session of Congress. Leahy says the bill has broad support in both the U.S. House and Senate, but a group of Republican senators is blocking final action on the proposal.

VPR’s Bob Kinzel reports.

(Kinzel) Congress’s schedule for the rest of the year is uncertain. It may come back next week for a day or two and it’s likely that it will hold a lame duck session after the election to complete its work on a number of key budget bills. Since time is limited, threats of a filibuster take on additional significance and that’s what’s happening with Leahy’s DNA bill.

The legislation calls for greater use of DNA testing in rape and murder cases by providing a billion dollars over a five-year period for expanded testing. It allows people already convicted of these crimes to seek DNA evidence that could prove their innocence. The bill also provides a $100 million to improve public defender representation in death penalty cases.

The House this week gave its overwhelming approval to the bill and the measure has been supported by the Senate Judiciary Committee. In fact, the committee’s chairman, Orrin Hatch, is a co-sponsor of the proposal.

But getting the legislation to the floor of the Senate has been difficult. A small group of Republican senators is opposed to the bill because they feel it will make it more difficult for states to prosecute death penalty cases. Leahy says the House vote is a clear sign that this is not a partisan issue:

(Leahy) “But I’m hoping that they’ll look at the fact that a heavy, heavy majority passed it over in the House, with all the Republican leadership voting for it in the House. This should not be considered a conservative or liberal bill. This is a good sense bill.”

(Kinzel) Leahy says expanding the use of DNA testing is important to make certain that the right person is put into jail:

(Leahy) “You always want to make sure you prosecute the right person. But one of the reasons is you know that if you get the wrong person, not only have you created a terrible injustice to that person, but the person who committed the crime is still out there loose, still free to do it again.”

(Kinzel) Leahy and Hatch are working together in an effort to convince members of the Senate to allow the legislation to come to floor for a vote before Congress adjourns for the year.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Bob Kinzel in Montpelier.

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