07.22.14

Statement Of Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Chairman, Senate Judiciary Committee, On Senate Consideration of the Justice for All Reauthorization Act of 2013

I have come to this floor many times to talk about the need to support law enforcement and to ensure that our criminal justice system serves everyone fairly.  I do so again today in light of a disturbing report issued by the Justice Department’s Inspector General last week, which described serious flaws in some of our nation’s crime labs.  The report focused on 13 crime lab examiners whose work was seriously flawed, and whose testimony contributed to the convictions of thousands of offenders, including 60 people on death row. 

The FBI launched an investigation and discovered these mistakes, but the agency took nearly five years to notify those who were impacted.  During that time 3 of the 60 people on death row were executed, and thousands more sat behind bars.  That is shocking and unacceptable.

These horrific mistakes are just one more reminder that our criminal justice system is not infallible.  That is why I again urge the Senate to take up and pass the Justice for All Reauthorization Act, a bill I introduced with Senator Cornyn last year.  This bipartisan legislation includes the Kirk Bloodsworth Post Conviction DNA Testing Grant Program, which seeks to prevent travesties like those described in this IG report. 

We are increasingly reliant on DNA and other forensic evidence in solving crimes.  Forensic lab analysts help identify the guilty and ensure their conviction.  DNA evidence can also tell us who is innocent, and who should be released if they were wrongly convicted.

This DNA testing program is particularly near and dear to my heart.  It is named for Kirk Bloodsworth, a man who has become a friend to me over the years.  Kirk was a young man just out of the Marines when he was convicted and sentenced to death for a terrible crime that he did not commit.  In 1993, he became the first person in the United States to be exonerated from a death row crime through the use of DNA evidence.

Since then, more than 250 additional people have been exonerated using this technology.  Thomas Haynesworth was exonerated in 2011 after spending 27 years in prison for crimes he did not commit, thanks to a grant provided by the Justice for All Act.  He was accused of rape in 1984, and wrongfully convicted.  The real perpetrator went on to rape more than a dozen women.  

Just yesterday, right down the street in DC Superior Court, a man was exonerated by DNA evidence.  Kevin Martin was released after spending 26 years in prison for the 1982 rape and murder of a Washington woman. 

We know that in our criminal justice system mistakes are inevitable.  But the Justice for All Act reauthorization gives us the chance to fix some of our most grievous errors.

The legislation also takes important steps to strengthen rights for victims of crime and reauthorizes the Debbie Smith Act, which has provided significant funding to reduce the backlog of untested rape kits.  The program is named for Debbie Smith, who waited years after being attacked before her rape kit was tested and the perpetrator was caught.  She and her husband Rob have worked tirelessly to ensure that others will not experience such horror.  I thank Debbie and Rob for their continuing help on this extremely important cause.

Senator Cornyn and I believe that pursuit of justice is not a partisan issue, which is why we were pleased when our bill was unanimously approved by the Judiciary Committee back in October.  Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is also a cosponsor of the bill.  All Senate Democrats support passage of this legislation.  Senator Grassley, the ranking member of the Judiciary Committee, called the inspector general’s report “shocking.”  I agree completely, which is why I believe it is time for the full Senate to reach an agreement and consider the Justice for All Reauthorization Act.

I thank the many law enforcement, victim services and criminal justice organizations that have helped to pinpoint the needed improvements that this law attempts to solve and I appreciate their ongoing support in seeing it passed.

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