- The Washington Times - Friday, July 19, 2002

The Senate Judiciary Committee yesterday approved a bill to provide DNA testing to federal death-row inmates, despite opposition from most of the panel's Republicans.

The Innocence Protection Act, sponsored by Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, Vermont Democrat, the panel's chairman was approved in a 12-7 vote, with Sens. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania and Sam Brownback of Kansas breaking with their fellow Republicans and supporting the bill.

Mr. Specter helped craft the bill and Mr. Brownback said he supported it because death-row inmates should have all defense tools available, including DNA testing.

In the House, a nearly identical bill has garnered 239 co-sponsors, and supporters are trying to persuade Judiciary Committee Chairman F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., Wisconsin Democrat, to act on it. A hearing has been held and committee spokesman Jeff Lungren said the bill is "under review" but noted the committee is busy with many other issues.

The Senate bill seeks to ensure that death-row inmates have access to sophisticated DNA tests that could prove their innocence and to competent legal counsel.

The effort has gained attention as states have begun to examine what some say are serious flaws in the death penalty system. In Illinois, Gov. George Ryan, a Republican, ordered a halt to executions after DNA testing and investigations by journalism students proved the innocence of 13 inmates on death row.

In addition to establishing federal DNA testing guidelines, the bill would require states to follow similar guidelines and make DNA testing available to inmates as a condition for receiving federal money for DNA-related programs.

Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, Utah Republican and ranking member of the Judiciary panel, said the measure goes too far and is unnecessary, because 25 of the 38 states that have capital punishment already have DNA-testing programs. Mr. Hatch has introduced a narrower bill that he says will accomplish the same goals, "with proper regard for traditional state functions and without burdening states with unfunded mandates."

But the strongest opposition from Republicans came over the Leahy bill's effort to ensure competent legal counsel for defendants in capital cases by awarding money to private, so-called capital defender organizations. Republicans said this was a veiled attempt to provide direct funds to advocacy groups fighting to abolish the death penalty.

"I oppose funding an advocacy group," said Sen. Jeff Sessions, Alabama Republican, adding that Democrats would never allow this for anti-abortion groups. "I don't think it can be passed with that language in it. And I don't think anyone would want to hold onto that language and have the bill die."

The bill would give money to states to improve or establish systems for providing competent attorneys to indigents in capital cases. States that apply for such grants would have to set up independent agencies to handle the issue, and people could sue the state if they feel it is not doing a good job in this area.

If a state chooses not to apply for this money, the money could go instead to private advocacy groups for training death-penalty lawyers and helping provide legal counsel in such cases.

Mr. Hatch said this sounds eerily similar to the situation when Congress defunded groups in the mid-1990s after a series of abuses and irregularities.

Sen. Jon Kyl, Arizona Republican, said there is a "built-in conflict of interest" in awarding money to "groups who have as their goal the [abolition] of the death penalty."

Mr. Leahy narrowed the bill to address some Republican concerns. Among other things, the bill would stipulate that advocacy groups receiving the funding cannot use it for political activities and would list certain factors the government must consider before awarding money to such groups.

But Mr. Sessions said he would fight the bill until the advocacy-group language is removed.

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