WASHINGTON -- Legislation to provide death row inmates with better access to DNA evidence and qualified lawyers is gathering momentum in Congress, fueled by recent Supreme Court decisions and high-profile exonerations of prisoners who had been sentenced to die.
An unusual bipartisan coalition of death penalty supporters and opponents has coalesced behind a package of criminal justice revisions that could make it easier for defendants and convicted offenders to prove their innocence.
The burgeoning support for the Innocence Protection Act, endorsed by a majority of House members and approved Thursday by the Senate Judiciary Committee, shows how dramatically public attitudes about the death sentence have shifted in recent years. It also shows how some lawmakers, undeterred by the current legislative gridlock that dominates national politics, have bridged the gulf between Republicans and Democrats.
Rep. William Delahunt, D-Mass., who, along with Rep. Ray LaHood, R-Ill., has spent more than two years enlisting 240 sponsors for the bill, said "a convergence" of developments helped his cause. A mounting list of exonerations and two Supreme Court rulings last month -- one prohibiting the execution of mentally retarded convicts and another requiring juries rather than judges to deliver death sentences -- have prompted many lawmakers to question how the death penalty is administered.
"There's an increasing awareness of the fallibility of the system," said Delahunt, a former prosecutor.
Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, Calif., one of 64 Republicans backing the bill, said he is now convinced prosecutors are as prone to making mistakes as the federal bureaucrats he likes to skewer.
"But in this case, innocent lives are at stake," Rohrabacher said. "I don't mind eliminating someone we know is guilty, but we need to do everything possible to determine that person is guilty."
The House and Senate bills differ, but both would give states incentives to preserve DNA evidence, allow inmates access to such material and provide qualified legal counsel for capital crime defendants.
Although more than 100 death row inmates have been exonerated since 1973 -- a dozen on DNA evidence -- gaining access to such material can prove difficult. According to Innocence Project executive director Nina Morrison, whose group seeks to clear death row inmates using genetic material, three times out of four the evidence has been lost or destroyed.
The legislation, she argued, would "replace an inadequate, often confusing patchwork of state DNA testing laws with a uniform national standard that is fair and easy to apply."