New Forensics, New Laws

Was the injustice dealt Carlos Lavernia 16 years ago the tip of the iceberg on wrongful convictions? We may find out soon enough if state lawmakers approve legislation establishing procedures for post-conviction DNA testing of inmates serving time for sexual assault and murder.

Several bills filed this session on both sides of the political fence address the DNA issue as a means of exonerating those sent to prison on faulty evidence. San Antonio Republican Sen. Jeff Wentworth, whose district includes parts of Travis and Williamson counties, has filed one such bill in SB 119. A similar senate bill, SB 3, sponsored by Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock, has already passed out of committee and awaits a full Senate vote. The Department of Public Safety estimates that passage of the bill would increase the agency's DNA testing by about 50 each year and would cost about $73,000 annually.

Similar bills have been filed in the House. Wentworth's second DNA bill calls for extending the statute of limitations for sexual assault from five to 15 years, specifically because of advances in forensic techniques involving DNA testing. Lavernia's case was one of two surprise DNA revelations that occurred last year in Travis County. Testing also cleared Chris Ochoa of a wrongful conviction for the 1988 rape and murder of a Pizza Hut employee. And in 1997, Ben Salazar was exonerated for a 1992 rape.

If not for an Austin police detective, Lavernia might still be in prison. As it happened, J.W. Thompson had interviewed Lavernia in the fall of 1999 about an unsolved murder case in the Barton Creek Greenbelt. Lavernia asked Thompson if he could provide a DNA sample to prove his innocence in the Barton Creek rape case. Even then, police officers weren't fully aware of the advances in DNA testing, so it's fortunate for Lavernia that Thompson even pursued his request, said Assistant District Attorney Bryan Case, who oversees the appellate division. "There's a lot of cops over there who wouldn't have gone to the trouble of picking up the phone and calling a prosecutor and saying, 'Hey, what do I do with this?' The fact that he did that really says a lot," Case said.

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