April 01, 2020

Lawmakers weigh change to DNA law

AUGUSTA – The Legislature’s Judiciary Committee signaled Tuesday that it may propose moderate changes in the state’s rules for seeking a new trial based on DNA evidence.

But some lawmakers and lawyers urged a go-slow approach.

Under current law, a person must be sentenced to at least 20 years in prison to be eligible to seek a new trial based on DNA analysis.

An advisory panel recommended to the committee Tuesday reducing that to a minimum one-year sentence, which in effect would give the DNA option to anybody convicted of a felony.

The impetus for the legislation, LD 1907, came from backers of a new trial for Dennis Dechaine of Bowdoinham.

He is serving a life sentence for the 1988 murder of a 12-year-old girl. His supporters argue that DNA evidence could exonerate Dechaine and that Maine’s legal burden of proof for a retrial based on DNA evidence is too high.

But the Judiciary Committee used Tuesday’s work session to consider the issue in much broader terms.

“This bill has taken a whole different course,” said the committee’s co-chairman, Sen. Barry J. Hobbins, D-Saco.

Sen. David R. Hastings, R-Fryeburg, said he found “more consensus than we think here,” and he wanted to move ahead with changes.

“Nobody wants to stay with what we’ve got” on DNA standards, Hastings said.

But Hobbins said the work would take time.

The panel is considering replacing the wording of LD 1907 based on recommendations by the Criminal Law Advisory Commission, which is appointed by the attorney general and is a resource for the Legislature.

“The tack we took was to look at current law and assess current law to see if it merits changing,” commission Chairman John Pelletier told the lawmakers Tuesday.

The commission’s recommendations included reducing the sentence threshold from 20 years to one year.

Evert Fowle, district attorney for Kennebec and Somerset counties, told the committee he favors a time limit on seeking new trials unless there is some technological advancement. “At some point, finality for victims should prevail,” he said.

LD 1907, sponsored by Rep. Ross Paradis, D-Frenchville, would make Maine’s post-conviction DNA law less restrictive. Under the current DNA law, a person seeking a new trial based on DNA analysis must essentially prove who committed the crime. The only other state with such a high burden of proof is Michigan.

The standards for granting a new trial are basically the same rules that have applied since the early 1950s. One of the five standards that has to be met is that the DNA test results, when considered with all other evidence, old and new, would make it probable that a different verdict would result with a new trial.

Several committee members questioned the term “probable,” as well as other terms in the revised version.

“None of us want an innocent person to remain convicted,” Fowle said, but he urged the Judiciary Committee to tighten the law even more.

The committee delayed decisions Tuesday because of concerns over specific wording and that the process is moving too fast. The panel meets again next week and has asked lawyers to redraft the proposal around the issues raised during Tuesday’s work session.

“This is vastly better than what was initially proposed. There’s been a sound injection of common sense,” Fowle said.

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