A big success and small setback for DNA testing

On Aug. 31, the state’s post-conviction DNA testing law worked exactly as it’s supposed to. Clarence Harrison, who’d spent 17 years in prison for a rape he didn’t commit, walked out of the DeKalb County Courthouse a free man.

Harrison can thank Georgia's year-old DNA law, which allows inmates convicted of violent felonies to be granted DNA testing in certain circumstances. Under the new law, the Georgia Innocence Project pushed for DNA tests comparing the semen stored in the rape kit collected after the 1986 crime to Harrison's own DNA. The tests proved Harrison could not have been the attacker.

Now, one of the authors of the legislation, Sen. David Adelman, D-Decatur, wants to guarantee that others in Harrison's situation will be able to test their crime scene DNA.

Adelman is attempting to pass legislation requiring statewide standards for preserving DNA evidence in criminal cases. After all, if DNA samples collected in other crime scenes aren't as well maintained as in Harrison's case, the statute will be rendered useless.

"We just saw the law work perfectly," Adelman says. "I want to keep going with this. There are 159 counties with 159 systems for keeping and preserving criminal evidence."

Yet Adelman's resolution to create a committee to study the preservation of DNA evidence — a resolution that unanimously passed the Senate in March — met a hurdle last week when Senate President Pro Tem Eric Johnson, R-Savannah, ceased all appointments to study committees. Johnson says a tight state budget and difficulty finding people to serve on committees led to his decision. The six-person committee Adelman proposed, which was already manned by Aimee Maxwell, director of the Georgia Innocence Project, and DeKalb Sheriff Tom Brown, now will be disbanded.

Johnson says the Senate Judiciary Committee, "which is a better model, anyway," will take on the task of creating DNA preservation standards instead.

"I don't mind the Judiciary Committee handling it," Adelman says. "But if we weren't going to do what we said we were, we could've been spending our time on something else. It's a little frustrating."

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