A federal appeals court has ruled that people claiming innocence who were convicted of crimes using inconclusive or outdated DNA testing procedures should have access to new testing even if the current time limit of 3 years has passed.  The decision was handed down by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and will significantly change the situations of many inmates claiming innocence. Until now, the ability to classify unusable or inconclusive DNA testing as “newly discovered evidence” was banned. The “newly discovered evidence” standard is not subject to appellate statute of limitations.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals is the first in the nation to rule that the advances in DNA technology mean previously useless samples should be considered newly discovered evidence that is not subject to statutory time limitations.

The Associated Press writes that protecting the innocent was at the forefront of the ruling, which was made in the case of Bill Watson, a Montana man who was convicted of attempted sexual abuse of a 14-year-old girl in 2006 and sentenced to over 14 years in prison.

The three-judge panel acknowledged in its opinion Friday that the ruling could re-open many closed cases to new DNA testing. But the judges said protecting the innocent is paramount, particularly when innocence can be proven by DNA evidence.

The Montana Innocence Project took up Watson’s case 2 years ago and requested DNA testing of evidence. The evidence had been previously tested, but the samples came back inconclusive due to the sampling size being too small at the time.

U.S. District Judge Sam Haddon denied the request for new testing, using updated and more sensitive technologies on the grounds that statute of limitations had passed in other words, they missed the deadline. However, the appellate court reversed this position and granted new testing.

In the court’s opinion, Judge Andrew Kleinfeld wrote, “No tradition is more firmly established in our system of law than assuring to the greatest extent that its inevitable errors are made in favor of the guilty rather than against the innocent.”

“The court’s ruling will hopefully help to provide easier access to new DNA testing in cases that depend on it, and allow a greater number of people to legally pursue their claims of innocence,” the Innocence Project said.

“If you can show that there are new DNA technologies available to you to show your innocence…you’re going to get DNA testing. I think that’s very big,” Betsy Griffing, the defendant’s lawyer, said.

In the Montana case, prosecutors said Bill Watson raped the girl while she was passed out during a party at her home, and the girl’s brother caught him in the act. Watson said he had gone into the bathroom adjacent to the bedroom and was never near the victim. A medical evaluation of the girl was inconclusive. The brother’s credibility became questionable after he gave police multiple contradictory stories about that night.

Authorities collected biological evidence from the scene, but technology at the time was insufficient to test them due to the small amount of evidence. Another issue complicating matters is that the underwear the police collected the samples from didn’t belong to the victim they belonged to her mother. Defense attorneys argue that the biological evidence could be null and void anyway because it could belong to someone having a relationship with the girl’s mother.

Congress set the 3-year statue of limitations when they passed the Innocence Protection Act of 2004, which is supposed to help use DNA tests to exonerate the wrongfully convicted.  The exception to the 3-year limit according to the law is only if there is “newly discovered” evidence.

Judge Hadden agreed with prosecutors that samples that have already been tested, even if they were tested on outdated equipment were not new evidence because the samples were available at the time even if no one had advanced enough technology to accurately match them to anyone.  The appellate court disagreed saying that technological advances fall under the exception.

“Doubtless many people possessed radium before Marie Curie discovered its properties, and uranium was used to make yellow glass for centuries before anyone else discovered other uses for it,” Kleinfeld wrote.

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