Alabama Passes Bill Restricting Access to DNA Testing for Death Row Prisoners


Alabama lawmakers recently passed a new law that requires the state to collect DNA samples from everyone who is arrested for a felony, including children. The law, which passed on the last day of the recently-concluded legislative session, also restricts access to DNA testing for people convicted of a capital offense and reduces the opportunity for a wrongfully convicted person to prove his innocence through DNA evidence.

Alabama law has long permitted law enforcement officials to collect DNA samples from people who are convicted of certain crimes and to include those samples in the state’s criminal database. H.B. 146 extends DNA collection to any person, including a child, who is arrested for a felony. This part of the law goes into effect October 1, 2010.

Even if the charges are dropped, the arrested child is adjudicated in juvenile court (where records are kept private to protect the child’s ability to rehabilitate and reintegrate into society), or the arrested person is found not guilty of any crime, there is no way to remove the DNA from the state database.

The new law also makes it more difficult for people convicted of capital murder to prove their innocence through DNA evidence. Since 1973, 133 people in 26 states have been released from death row with evidence of their innocence. Eight people have been exonerated in Alabama after being wrongfully convicted and condemned to die.

Under Alabama’s new law, many of the people who have been exonerated would have been denied access to DNA testing and prevented from proving their innocence. The Alabama law does not allow DNA testing in any case where some DNA testing was done previously – even if the earlier testing was inconclusive, botched, or used outdated techniques.

North Carolina death row inmate Darryl Hunt was exonerated after state-of-the-art DNA testing proved that someone else committed the crime for which he was convicted and sentenced to death. Because DNA evidence from the case was tested earlier, Alabama’s law would have barred Mr. Hunt from the DNA testing that exonerated him and identified the real perpetrator, even though the earlier tests were based on outmoded technology and produced inconclusive results.

In addition, the law imposes strict time limits on an incarcerated person to request DNA testing and requires the filing of a detailed legal pleading. Because Alabama does not provide legal help to people on death row, these requirements will be impossible to meet for most death row prisoners.

In the past decade, state and federal jurisdictions across the country have passed legislation to provide easier, more reliable access to postconviction DNA testing in response to mounting evidence that shocking numbers of innocent people have been convicted and sentenced to death. Alabama’s law runs starkly against this trend by making it significantly more difficult for wrongly convicted people to prove their innocence – and for law enforcement to identify actual perpetrators – through new, improved DNA technology. It also raises serious concerns about privacy by mandating that police take and forever keep DNA from individuals, including children, before they have been found guilty of any crime.