WASHINGTON — Senate Democrats touted new Republican support Wednesday for a measure that allows state and federal death row inmates to ask for DNA testing to prove their innocence. The measure also pressures states to find competent lawyers for poor defendants facing a death sentence.
Sen. Susan Collins is one of those Republicans whose new support for the measure is being touted by Democrats that first introduced the bill in February.
The measure is designed to appeal to both sides — those who are for the death penalty and those against. It allows inmates to request DNA testing when it is possible to do so and is relevant to the case.
It also would require states to create a centralized, independent agency to appoint competent lawyers for inmates who can not afford a lawyer. If the states do not do so after a few years, they would lose key federal grants for law enforcement.
Collins said she has been a longtime opponent of the death penalty “because of my fear an innocent person could be convicted. … Clearly justice is not done when innocent people are put to death and guilty people go free.”
Maine abolished the death penalty in 1887. Eleven other states also do not have the death penalty including Vermont, Massachusetts and Rhode Island.
Since the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1973, 85 death row inmates were found innocent, according to the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington, D.C. DNA testing has freed 64 prisoners so far, according to the center.
Yet sometimes state and federal jurisdictions cross and the federal government could give the death penalty in a state that does not allow it. The federal government could take over a case and imposed the death penalty for such federal crimes as treason, hostage taking, espionage and crimes committed using chemical weapons or weapons of mass destruction.
The measure would limit the types of cases the federal government could give the death penalty in nondeath-penalty states.
Several of the senators backing the measure said they had misgivings about it at first. Collins said she was not sure if the federal government should be intervening in which lawyers are appointed by the states to the poor.
But she said she ultimately backed it because people facing the death penalty in states that allow it should have the best defense they can get.
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., who authored the measure, said he was not sure if it would make it past the Senate this year. If it does not pass, he said at least a debate on the issue could start. An identical measure has been introduced in the House.
The legislation comes as the death penalty is re-emerging in the national spotlight. The New Hampshire legislature voted to abolish the death penalty but that measure was vetoed by the governor last month.
In March the Illinois legislature and the governor, approved a moratorium on the death penalty after 13 death row inmates were found innocent.
Also, Republican presidential candidate Texas Gov. George W. Bush last week postponed one execution so DNA testing could be done.