A man who spent 27 years in prison on a wrongful conviction told the Senate Judiciary Committee today that government-funded DNA testing was the key to his exoneration.
Thomas Haynesworth, who was exonerated last year from convictions for a series of rapes in Virginia he didn’t commit, said there were costs for proving his innocence: the tests, overtime for lab workers and fees for attorneys. The Kirk Bloodsworth Post-Conviction DNA Testing Program helped pay for that, he said.
“Without this support, I still would be in prison today,” Haynesworth told the committee.
Chairman Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) said the committee will spend the next two weeks on the reauthorization of the Justice for All Act, which includes funding for the Bloodsworth program, as well as state and local government DNA testing and other forensic disciplines.
The act also includes new protections for victims of crime, as well as reauthorizing and updating the Debbie Smith Rape Kit Backlog Reduction Act, so “victims need not live in fear while kits languish in storage,” Leahy said.
“Today, we should rededicate ourselves to ensuring that we have a criminal justice system where the innocent remain free, the guilty parties are punished, and all sides have the tools, resources and knowledge they need to advance the cause of justice,” Leahy said.
In February 1984, when Haynesworth was 18 years old, he was charged with five rapes and sexual assaults. He had never been arrested before, but one of the victims saw him walking to the store to buy sweet potatoes for his mother and identified him as her attacker.
Four other women mistakenly identified him, no DNA testing existed at the time. He was convicted to 74 years in prison.
“Innocence programs not only save the lives of those who are wrongfully convicted, but they also help make sure our criminal justice system is fair,” Haynesworth said. “Without these programs, I would be in prison.”
More than 280 convicted individuals have been exonerated with DNA evidence in the last 20 years in the United States, according to the Innocence Project.
Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) said the Senate needs to get a better understanding of how many innocence cases are out there before it can know whether reforms are needed and what types of reforms would provide the best help.
“Chief among the issues to discuss today is the question of how many innocent men and women may have been convicted over the years and how do we effectively review those cases, correct injustices, and apply what we learn so those injustices are not repeated,” Grassley said.
“This is not an easy task,” Grassley said. “So, the question becomes - how do we determine which cases should be reviewed and how do we allocate the limited resources of the government to review these cases?"
District Attorney Craig Watkins of Dallas County in Texas, and District Attorney Joshua Marquis of Clatsop County in Oregon also testified at the hearing.