A bill updating and expanding Colorado’s law for post-conviction DNA testing became law Friday, March 10.
House Bill 1034 was carried by rural lawmakers Rep. Matt Soper, R-Delta, and Sen. Cleave Simpson, R-Alamosa. State Sen. Julie Gonzales, Democratic Majority Whip, and Rep. Lindsey Daugherty, D-Denver, also were primary sponsors.
Soper on Monday said the newly signed law, which goes into effect in October, is an important step forward and allows the justice system to better keep pace with continued advances in DNA-testing technology.
Under the previous law, if DNA evidence had already been tested, then those incarcerated could not have it tested again, or, if DNA existed that could have been tested at time of conviction, but the defendant didn’t seek it, he or she couldn’t opt for that later, Soper said.
“If you’d turned down a DNA test at the time of your conviction, you would be unable to test (later),” he said.
Soper last year worked with the Korey Wise Innocence Project, based at CU Boulder School of Law, after hearing the story of Robert “Rider” Dewey, who was wrongfully convicted in the murder of a Palisade woman and spent years in prison.
“Absolutely, I wanted to be involved in this bill,” he said.
Soper said Dewey had been denied subsequent DNA testing until the Mesa County District Attorney agreed more testing should be conducted. Dewey’s counsel, Korey Wise Innocence Project and the Colorado Attorney General’s Office also advocated for the testing, which cleared Dewey.
“It was 100% mathematically impossible,” for Dewey to have committed the crime, Soper said. “His conviction was overturned, but not everyone would have had a good DA. And it shouldn’t be up to the DA if they choose to go to bat for someone. It should be the ability to petition the court on the good faith belief that it would overturn your conviction, to have a post-conviction DNA test conducted.”
Soper added that petitioners will have to be able to make a showing that having the test would prove actual innocence, and not merely serve to possibly reduce a prison sentence.
The expanded DNA testing law requires a “reasonable probability” that no conviction would have occurred with DNA testing, or that previously tested DNA evidence could, with additional testing, provide a “reasonable likelihood” of useful results.
Korey Wise Innocence Project Policy Director Jeanne Segil told the Daily Press in late February that Colorado’s post-conviction DNA testing law hadn’t been updated in 20 years and since that time, only three people — Dewey and two others — had been able to win a DNA-related exoneration.
“What this (bill) does is bring us in line with other states across the country,” Segil previously told the Daily Press.
“What we’re trying to do is create a more workable standard. We firmly believe there are innocent people behind bars and if they are able to access testing, we would see a lot more (exonerations).”
Soper said that is an important component of the bill.
“The other reason it’s important is if we have an innocent person in prison, that also means the guilty person is not in prison, and someone is still out on the streets having committed a very heinous crime,” Soper said. “It’s important to make sure … these horrible perpetrators actually pay for their crimes.”
The newly signed measure also amended some of the language and definitions in the former post-conviction DNA testing law and defined “eligible person” as someone convicted of a felony — including those currently in prison, as well as those on parole or probation, subject to sex offender registration, or those who have served their sentence.
Segil also said a petitioner — who must pay for the testing — can use a private lab upon a showing of good cause to do so. Private labs may have the latest techniques available and less backlog than the state lab.
"We think it's going to bring a new era in terms of innocence work in Colorado. We're eager to see what impacts the bill will have," she said Monday.
The bill cleared the Legislature unanimously, which Segil said "thrilled" the Korey Wise Innocence Project. The backing also pleased sponsors.
“This was the first bill to pass both chambers unanimously,” Soper said, praising his colleagues for being on board through every step of the process. “I feel like this is great policy and the type of work citizens expect us to be doing.
“It makes me feel very proud to see the governor sign it into law.”