JUNEAU - Sen. Hollis French is questioning why a federal law regarded as the "gold standard" for post-conviction DNA testing isn't good enough for Alaska.
The Anchorage Democrat, gubernatorial candidate and former criminal prosecutor said he will introduce a bill through his Judiciary Committee as soon as Monday that more closely resembles the federal law. French noted the federal law was passed by a Republican Congress and signed by President George W. Bush in 2004. He said he'd prefer the state default to a law that's already been tested.
French's proposal would substitute Gov. Sean Parnell's proposed DNA bill. Parnell's proposal drew criticism in testimony the committee heard Friday. The Alaska Innocence Project and a former public defender said the governor's bill limits access to DNA evidence too severely, and is much more restrictive than the federal law and the state's status quo.
"The bill makes it more likely to keep the innocent in jail than no bill at all," said Barbara Brink, a former Alaska public defender.
"Bad lawyering" was of particular concern, critics told the committee. Under the governor's bill, a defense attorney's decision to forgo DNA testing before a trial would block the defendant from getting DNA testing proving their innocence after the trial. The federal law has similar, but somewhat more lenient, restrictions.
French said he'd yet to study the differences in depth, but that given the federal law's supporters, "It's probably not coddling criminals."
Assistant Attorney General Annie Carpeneti said many of the technical critiques were valid, and already addressed by amendments in the House version of Parnell's bill.
She defended other points, such as a bill provision that favors DNA testing requests made within three years of a conviction. Deputy Attorney General Rick Svobodny has said the "timeliness" provision is intended to encourage DNA testing up front so it's aired out during a trial. That provision and others attempt to weed out bad candidates for having convictions overturned.
Overall, the administration says, Parnell's proposal strikes a balance between providing access to the wrongly convicted and keeping the justly convicted from abusing the system.
The bill is among several the administration is pushing as part of its efforts to crack down on domestic violence and sexual assault in Alaska.