Senate Hears Arguments to Re-enact 'Justice For All Act'

"Justice For All" Act would allow funding for DNA testing that would help exonerate those who have been wrongly convicted of crimes.

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Thomas Haynesworth walked freely into his mother's home on his 46th birthday, the first time in 27 years he had hugged her outside of the confines of Greensville Correctional Center in Jaratt, Virginia. At 18, Haynesworth was arrested while on his way to a grocery store, and later convicted of a series of rapes he did not commit, ultimately resulting in a 74-year prison sentence. During the time he served in prison, Haynesworth always affirmed his innocence. Last year,  DNA  tests helped to set him free.

"I believed one day the truth would come out. I had my faith in God, and I had faith that one day my DNA would prove I was innocent," Haynesworth said.

Wednesday, on the one-year anniversary of his release, Haynesworth testified to the Senate Judiciary Committee on reauthorizing the "Justice for All Act," a piece of legislation first passed in 2004 that provides funding to help state and local governments use DNA evidence to convict the guilty and free the innocent.

A Judiciary Committee Spokesperson said Wednesday that a mark up of the bill will occur within the next few weeks before it is sent to the Senate floor for consideration. [Read: Milligan: 'Last Meal' Means More to Executioners than Executed]

Since 1989, when DNA evidence first became available, 289 prisoners in the United States, including Haynesworth, have been exonerated of their crimes. In 139 of those cases, the real suspects were identified.

"I know that the vast majority of the time our criminal justice system works fairly and effectively," says Sen. Patrick Leahy, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. "In those rare instances when the criminal justice system does not work the way it should, the consequences are grave and our faith in the system is shaken."

Leahy, who sponsored the reauthorization bill says that, the "Justice for All Act" would make it easier for states to obtain grants through the Kirk Bloodsworth Post-Conviction DNA Testing Grant Program, a program that helps states with the costs of post-conviction DNA testing.

"[Mr. Haynesworth] spent 27 years in prison because of a wrongful conviction. Sadly, we cannot give him those years, but we can try to ensure that this does not happen to someone else," Leahy says.

In addition to helping states pay for DNA tests, the "Justice for All Act" would steer more federal funds to improving the quality of defense attorneys in state death row cases.

Critics of the bill, however, argue that exonerations are so rare that with a limited budget, the federal government would be better off directing precious money elsewhere.

"It is important to know that there is a real discrepancy in the number of individuals in prison and how many people are actually innocent," Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley said. "We do not have the resources at the federal level to provide funding to states to review every single criminal case after each case has exhausted all available remedies, nor should we interfere with the day-to-day intricacies of state criminal justice."

Josh Marquis, a district attorney in Clatsop County, Oregon, argues the sensationalized media coverage make instances of wrongful convictions seem more frequent than they actually are.

"The cases are rare enough that they make headlines," Marquis says. "I would quit my job and go do something else if I thought wrongful convictions were so rampant."

Minnesota Sen. Al Franken urged those on his committee to focus on how DNA tests could reduce the number of people serving in prison, saving tax payers money in the long run. He also emphasized how even one wrongful conviction is one too many.

"We often hear about wrongful convictions in terms of data compiled. Those statistics are of course important, but we can't lose sight of the human toll caused by wrongful convictions," Franken says.

Haynesworth says securing his own freedom was not easy and admits that making up for lost time has proven challenging. But, since Virginia's Attorney General offered him a job in the mailroom, Haynesworth has learned to use a cell phone, a computer and reconnected with family -some of whom , like his nieces and nephews, he met for the first time last year. "Innocence programs save lives of those who are wrongfully convicted," Haynesworth testified. "Without these programs, I would still be in prison."