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An Important Step Forward in Protecting the Innocent | Commentary

With all the focus on gridlock in Washington, there are certain areas where Congress ought to be able to find common ground. One such area is the Justice for All Reauthorization Act, which I am proud to co-sponsor.

The Justice for All Act strengthens safeguards to prevent wrongful convictions and improves protections and legal rights for crime victims and their families. It also boosts the use of DNA testing and other current technology to improve the accuracy of evidence commonly used today across the U.S. criminal justice system.

Legislation authorizing these critically important programs has not passed Congress since 2004, a full decade ago. I believe it is time for Congress to come together to fix this before the midterm election campaigns overtake us.

The powerful role of DNA evidence in criminal justice hit home for me when I had the honor of serving as governor of Virginia. In my four years as governor, Virginia took unprecedented steps in conducting DNA testing culminating in 2005, when I ordered the country’s first-ever post-execution DNA review of evidence in the celebrated case of Roger Keith Coleman. In 1992, Coleman was executed in Virginia for the rape and murder of his sister-in-law, despite his repeated insistence that he was not guilty. Just days before his execution, Coleman’s photo appeared on the cover of Time Magazine beneath the caption “This Man Might Be Innocent.”

Fast-forward 13 years, when it came to my attention that it was possible for Virginia to subject crime scene evidence in Coleman’s case to modern DNA analysis. As a governor, I presided over executions and I considered this to be the most serious and solemn responsibility of the job. That obligation also entails a special duty to seek out the truth, no matter where it takes you. That’s why I authorized the 2005 DNA testing, which ultimately supported the guilty verdict and death sentence for Coleman.

I also ordered Virginia’s crime lab to review random samples of evidence that we learned had been retained in a series of felony cases from the pre-DNA era. Of the 31 random tests we conducted, two men previously convicted of rape were cleared, and another sample produced a match with an existing sample in Virginia’s DNA databank, allowing us to bring the true rapist to justice.

At the time, this type of post-conviction DNA review was unprecedented. No other state had undertaken anything like it. After pardoning the two men who were cleared by testing of the random samples, I ordered a more comprehensive review of evidence that had been retained in other case files.

The commonwealth’s national leadership in the review of post-conviction DNA would not have been possible without the peculiar work habits of Virginia crime lab forensic analyst Mary Jane Burton.

Burton developed a habit of attaching leftover samples of biological evidence inside the hundreds of case files she handled from 1973 through 1988. Although she died in 1999 and thus did not live to see it, I ordered a review of thousands of case files held at our state crime lab and required that DNA testing be conducted wherever appropriate. As a result, more than a dozen wrongfully convicted defendants in Virginia have been exonerated so far.

As a governor, and now as a senator, I know firsthand of the potential power of the Justice for All Act’s provisions which support this type of post-conviction review of DNA evidence. Thomas Haynesworth served 27 years in prison for a crime he did not commit. He was accused of raping five women, and while the real criminal went on to rape another 10 women, Haynesworth sat in prison. While I was governor, I ordered a review of his case. During that review, which continued after I left Richmond, DNA evidence proved that Haynesworth was not the criminal. His case was ultimately supported by Virginia’s Republican governor and attorney general, and Haynesworth was released from prison on his 46th birthday. His story brought a diverse group together who share the common belief that our system of justice must work.

The strong enforcement of our laws has to be combined with a willingness to discover the truth whenever we can. That’s why we must reauthorize this law in order to ensure that no defendant is wrongly convicted, and that no crime victim goes without the peace of mind of knowing the true offender has been clearly identified and properly punished. When mistakes are made in our criminal justice system, we all are less safe.

This is not, and never should be, a partisan issue. The author of the Justice for All Reauthorization Act, Democratic Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, knows this. And so does Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, another co-sponsor of this legislation.

I encourage my colleagues in Congress to join me in support of the Justice for All Reauthorization Act. By working together, we can do something real for the innocent, and instill greater confidence that we are punishing the guilty. This bipartisan legislation provides more support for victims of crime, and offers reassurance to so many others who may have lost faith in the integrity of our criminal justice system.

Sen. Mark Warner, a Democrat, served as governor of Virginia from 2002 to 2006. He currently serves on the Senate’s Banking, Budget, Finance and Intelligence committees.

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