OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — Convicted criminals who maintain their innocence would have a way to seek DNA testing to help prove their cases under a bill that is nearing final passage in the Legislature and would eliminate Oklahoma’s dubious distinction as the only state in the nation without such a program.
The Oklahoma House voted unanimously on Thursday for the Postconviction DNA Act, which allows those convicted of violent felonies or who have been sentenced to 25 years or more in prison to file a motion in court to request forensic DNA testing of any biological material in the case that may help them assert their innocence.
“Oklahoma is the only state that didn’t have a mechanism in place for people who were in prison erroneously and who were innocent to work their way out of the system,” said Rep. Lee Denney, R-Stillwater, who sponsored the bill after her appointment to the Oklahoma Justice Commission. “It’s incumbent upon the state not to incarcerate innocent people.”
The bill, which still must be approved by the Senate before being sent to the governor, was the product of negotiations between prosecutors, defense attorneys and the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation. It would allow qualifying prisoners to formally request DNA testing in the court in which they were sentenced. A hearing would be held for a judge to determine if DNA evidence existed in the case and if there was a “reasonable probability” that the petitioner would not have convicted if favorable results were obtained through DNA testing.
“DNA testing has improved over the last 20 years and it may continue improving over the next 20 years,” said Bob Ravitz, Oklahoma County’s chief public defender, who noted more than 300 people have exonerated nationally in the last few decades, including nearly a dozen in Oklahoma, as a result of post-conviction DNA testing.
Among the high-profile exonerations in Oklahoma were those of Ron Williamson and Dennis Fritz, who both were convicted in the 1982 killing of Ada waitress Debra Sue Carter. Williamson, who was sentenced to death, at one point came within days of being executed. Both men were later exonerated, and their case was featured in the book “The Innocent Man: Murder and Injustice in a Small Town” by John Grisham.
Following that case, Oklahoma established a post-conviction DNA testing program in the early 2000s, but a provision was written into the law for the program to expire after several years, in part because some legislators feared it could be inundated with inmate requests.