Tennessee’s General Assembly passed a bill that requires officials to preserve biological evidence in death penalty cases.
The legislation requires that all biological evidence collected for a criminal offense in which one or more of the defendants are sentenced to death must be preserved until all defendants are executed, otherwise die, or all related charges are dismissed.
The investigating law enforcement agency is responsible for preserving any biological evidence collected but never introduced at trial, and the court clerk must preserve evidence that is introduced at trial. The bill will apply to all biological evidence collected prior to the effective date of the bill that is in the custody of a court clerk or law enforcement agency.
Ray Krone, who was released from death row in Arizona after DNA evidence exonerated him and who now lives in Tennessee, testified at the House hearing. “That DNA not only saved my life,” he said. “It also, because it was preserved by the Phoenix Police Department, it identified the true murderer.”
The Death Penalty Information Center, which tracks exonerations from death row, reports that DNA testing also played a key role in the exonerations of Paul House and Michael McCormick, who collectively spent nearly 40 years on Tennessee’s death row before they were exonerated.
Since 1973, 156 people have been exonerated and released from death row in America. According to the Innocence Project, 341 people nationwide have been exonerated based on DNA evidence.
The bill, SB2342/HB2377, unanimously passed the Senate on April 4 and was sent to the House, which unanimously passed it on April 13. It was sent to Governor Bill Haslam last Wednesday and is waiting on his signature.
EJI has called for improved access to forensic testing in Alabama, where two EJI clients were exonerated and released last year. Beniah Dandridge was released last fall after a faulty fingerprint match caused him to spend 20 years in prison for a crime he did not commit, and Anthony Ray Hinton spent 30 years on Alabama’s death row after being wrongfully convicted of capital murder based on a faulty bullet match. In both of these cases, state officials kept innocent men in prison for years by refusing to conduct the tests that ultimately exonerated them.