Tony Wright spent 25 years in prison for a crime he did not commit - the 1991 rape and murder of Louise Talley in Philadelphia.
Six of those years were spent fighting in court for DNA testing, which was finally conducted in 2013. The results excluded Wright and matched the profile of Ronnie Byrd, a drug addict who lived next door to the victim. But Talley's family never saw Byrd brought to justice; he died in a South Carolina hospital the same month his identity finally became known.
When Pennsylvania adopted a post-conviction DNA testing law in 2002, it was intended to provide a clear legal avenue for wrongfully convicted people like Wright to access evidence that could prove their innocence.
But Wright had to go all the way to Pennsylvania's highest court to secure testing. The trial and intermediate appeals courts wrongly claimed that a "confession" in the case, later proven to have been coerced, barred him from testing.
In the 15 years since its passage, the DNA-testing law has often been more of a roadblock than a pathway to justice. That's why we have introduced legislation to provide Pennsylvanians with the same access to DNA testing that exists for wrongfully convicted people in most other states.
First, our bill would remove the current court-imposed ban on testing for those who plead guilty - a stipulation that does not exist in 45 other states. While it may be counterintuitive, one of every 10 innocent Americans who were later exonerated with DNA pled guilty to crimes they did not commit.
William Kelly was one of those people. He was wrongfully convicted of the 1990 murder of Jeanette Thomas in Dauphin County. Kelly, who suffered from mental illness, confessed and pled guilty. While he was in prison, a man named Joseph Miller was facing trial for similar murders in the area and admitted to killing Thomas. The Dauphin County district attorney ordered DNA testing of evidence from the 1990 case, and the results confirmed Miller as the culprit. Paradoxically, had Kelly requested testing under current law, he would have been ineligible because he pled guilty.
Our bill also eliminates restrictions on post-conviction DNA testing in cases where the type of testing being requested was available but not conducted at the time of the person's original trial. This current provision unfairly penalizes people whose attorneys, for whatever reason, did not seek testing.
In addition, our bill gets rid of the requirement that a person be incarcerated or on parole or probation to be eligible for testing. This would help innocent people clear their name if they are no longer in prison but continue suffering the consequences of having a criminal record for something they didn't do.
Fair access to DNA testing benefits us all. When an innocent person is behind bars, the real perpetrator remains undetected, potentially harming others. Of the nation's 349 wrongful convictions overturned with DNA, the real perpetrators went on to be convicted of 100 additional violent crimes.
DNA testing sheds light on the truth. It is time for Pennsylvania to ensure this technology is being used to its full potential to exonerate the innocent and keep our communities safe.
State Sen. Stewart Greenleaf (R.) is chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee and represents Pennsylvania's 12th Senatorial District, which includes Montgomery and Bucks Counties. email@example.com
State Rep. Tedd C. Nesbit (R.) serves on the House Judiciary Committee and represents Pennsylvania's Eighth House District, which includes Mercer and Butler Counties. TNesbit@pahousegop.com