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New DNA testing requirements in Texas

Amarillo, TX - 1984 was the first time DNA evidence was used in a criminal case.  And since then, it has played an increasingly central role in criminal cases - but prosecutors and defense attorneys alike have some qualms about how it's used and how it's collected -- so now a new Texas law hopes to ease those qualms by standardizing the procedure.

Starting September 1st, state investigators will be legally required to test any relevant evidence in a capital case as soon as practicable. And after a conviction, a defendant could only appeal the results once, only with good cause, and and any re-testing would be done at their own expense.

The idea is to minimize uncertainty about convictions and virtually eliminate the possibility of excessive appeals later on.

One local defense attorney says the bill is a good start, but it won't fix an imperfect and already backlogged system.

"The biggest problem I see with this bill is it relies on a system that's not something we should necessarily rely on to begin with," says Steven Denny, a criminal defense attorney in Amarillo.  "The DPS lab system is severely overworked, DNA tests can take over six months to get back; and so the case is just floundering for that amount of time."

Supporters cite the now twenty year-old case of Hank Skinner.  Skinner was convicted in 1995 of a 1993 triple homicide in Pampa, but has filed multiple appeals over the last eighteen years.  And while eighteen years on death row may seem excessive, the ability to appeal is seen as a necessary element of a fair trial.

"The finality of the death sentence is pretty extreme - there's no room for mistakes," says Denny.  "And unfortunately, that is a system that is filled with humans who will inevitably make mistakes - and it's been exposed that some of those people make those mistakes on purpose."

Since 1989, there have been 1,050 exonerations in the United States, 114 of which were in Texas.

If you'd like to learn more about the new law, exonerations in the U.S., or Skinner's case, follow the links attached to this story.

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