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February 9, 2015
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The Texas Senate
Houston Senator Rodney Ellis filed the bill which will clarify when courts can order DNA testing.

(AUSTIN) — The circumstances under which a court can order DNA testing would be more clear under a bill filed by a Houston Senator last week. Senator Rodney Ellis said at a Monday press conference that he has filed a bill that will clarify under state law when DNA evidence testing can be sought and when DNA databases can be used. While the bill would only make two minor changes to existing law, Ellis said it would fulfil the request of the State Court of Criminal Appeals for clarification surrounding some murky legal issues, and will help free wrongly convicted individuals and bring the real perpetrators to justice.

Ellis told reporters that there have been 329 people in America and 52 in Texas exonerated through DNA testing since 1989. In 21 of the Texas cases, the real perpetrators of the crimes were later identified. This fact proves, said Ellis, that not only is DNA testing important for freeing the innocent, but for catching the guilty. "Fair access to DNA testing for wrongfully convicted Texans is a matter of justice and also of public safety," he said.

His bill, SB 487, would make two clarifications in law. The first change states that courts may order forensic DNA testing if there is a reasonable likelihood that evidence contains biological traces. The current standard only allows testing if there is biological material that has already been identified. "Modern DNA technology can generate results from saliva, sweat and skin cells that are invisible to the naked eye," he said. The second would allow DNA matches from nationally recognized DNA databases to be used as proof that a person is innocent if DNA from a crime scene matches another person in that database.

Michael Morton, who was exonerated after spending 25 years in prison for a crime he didn't commit, joined Ellis at the Monday press conference. After a long legal battle, he was able to obtain the DNA testing that proved he was innocent. "If the interpretation of law as it stands now was enforced when I was trying to get access, I would not have been able to receive that access," he said. DNA evidence later helped to convict and sentence a man to life in prison for the crime of which Morton had been accused.

Ellis said that he is optimistic about the bill's chances of passing because he has worked with Governor Greg Abbott on DNA testing issues when Abbott was the state attorney general in 2013. Abbott supported a 2013 bill by Ellis that would require the testing of all biological evidence when the state is seeking the death penalty. "I'm hopeful and confident that we'll be able to pass this legislation, hopefully with some help from the Governor," he said.

The Senate will reconvene Tuesday, February 10 at 11 a.m.

Session video and all other Senate webcast recordings can be accessed from the Senate website's Audio/Video Archive.