- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 6, 2002

A majority of House lawmakers now support a bill to provide DNA testing for federal death-row inmates, but Republican leaders are giving no indication they will allow a vote on the measure.
The Innocence Protection Act had 234 co-sponsors as of last week, and its supporters are trying to persuade Judiciary Committee Chairman F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. to schedule a hearing.
"It's going to be incumbent upon me to persuade our leadership," said bill author Rep. Ray LaHood, Illinois Republican and an ally of Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, who has not taken a position on the legislation. "This is not one of the top 10 things on [Mr. Hasterts] agenda. We just have to push it."
Though the bill would apply only to the relatively few federal death penalty cases, it arose from the situation in Illinois. There 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.
Mr. LaHood's bill, co-authored by Rep. Bill Delahunt, Massachusetts Democrat, would provide as much as $50 million annually to give federal death-row inmates access to DNA testing. The genetic material in blood and other bodily fluids can establish the innocence or guilt of a person by comparing the inmate's DNA code to that of such evidence as bloodstains at the crime scene.
The legislation would also set guidelines to ensure that suspects in capital murder cases get a competent defense attorney. Senate Democrats are pushing similar legislation proposed by Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy, Vermont Democrat.
The vast majority of House Republicans 161 do not support the legislation. They include all four of the Republican leaders. Fifty-one of the 234 co-sponsors in the House are Republicans.
Some conservatives argue that the legislation would impose federal guidelines on states.
"If you want the federal government and in particular, the Department of Justice to tie your hands as the governor, with regard to how to conduct every single death penalty case in your state, then you ought to endorse this legislation," Rep. Bob Barr, Georgia Republican and a Judiciary Committee member, told Mr. Ryan earlier this year.
But some prominent conservative Republicans support the legislation, including Reps. Dan Burton of Indiana, chairman of the Governmental Reform Committee; Christopher H. Smith of New Jersey; Dana Rohrabacher of California and Jennifer Dunn of Washington.
Mr. LaHood, who supports the death penalty, said the bill "goes a long way" to achieving certainty of a condemned inmate's guilt.
"If you really believe in the death penalty, there's got to be 100 percent certainty, and there hasn't been 100 percent certainty," Mr. LaHood said in an interview. "The way the system works right now is flawed."
Mr. Delahunt, a member of the Judiciary Committee, has been trying to persuade Mr. Sensenbrenner to schedule a hearing for the bill. But a committee spokesman said Mr. Sensenbrenner, Wisconsin Republican, has not indicated whether he will consider the measure.
"He's reviewing it; he's not a co-sponsor of it," said committee spokesman Jeff Lungren. "We've got a whole host of other issues that are outstanding."
Mr. Lungren said the panel will be busy in July with the administration's proposal to create a Cabinet-level Department of Homeland Security.
"We're going to be very much engaged in that process, including INS overhaul issues," Mr. Lungren said, referring to the Immigration and Naturalization Service. "We certainly have a very full plate."
David Elliot, spokesman for the Washington-based National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, said the bill "would make a very flawed system somewhat less flawed."
"It will increase access to DNA testing, and it will potentially improve quality of counsel being afforded to capital murder suspects," Mr. Elliot said. "Ultimately, in fighting to abolish the death penalty, we're going to have to do it state by state, legislature by legislature. We have momentum, but it's still an uphill fight."

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