Inmates vs. DNA Deadline

In Florida, lawyers with the aid of law students are furiously battling a coming DNA testing deadline, after which they will not be allowed testing to prove their innocence.

Meanwhile, Barry Scheck, cofounder of the The Innocence Project at Cardozo Law School in New York, is trying to line up support from lawyers around the state to find a way to lift the ''arbitrary deadline,'' established by the Legislature two years ago.

He characterizes the situation as a looming miscarriage of justice for possibly hundreds of inmates who could be cheated out of the chance the law was designed to provide.

Under the law, passed in 2001 and sponsored by Sen. Alex Villalobos, R-Miami, anyone convicted of a crime has two years after a sentence becomes final to ask a judge to review DNA testing of physical evidence. Those convicted before the Villalobos law went into effect have until Oct. 1 to file their petitions.

Villalobos is willing to consider extending the deadline, but Florida Governor Jeb Bush is not.

Why isn't two years enough time?

Scheck and others say the enormous amount of work involved in culling through requests from inmates searching for legitimate cases, then documenting them to meet the requirements of the law, make the deadline unmeetable.

In some cases, the inmates have been imprisoned for years and have no legal representation. When they do find a pro-bono lawyer willing to take on a case, the investigation includes tracking down trial transcripts, previous lawyers and evidence that in some cases dates back 20 years.

A judge considering a petition would be required to decide whether the DNA evidence still exists, whether it would be admissible in court and whether there is a ''reasonable probability'' that a conviction would be reversed if the evidence were admitted at trial. The law gives the judge the leeway to deny the motion if the facts are not sufficient to justify a DNA review, and the prosecutor may appeal a judge's ruling to grant DNA review.

133 factually innocent people have been released from prison to date due to DNA testing which has conclusively shown they did not commit the crime for which they were convicted. How many more are languishing there?

There should be no time limit on justice, critics say. ''When does innocence become irrelevant?'' said Bruce Rogow, a First Amendment expert at Nova Southeastern University in Davie.

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