A broad court rule permitting the reopening of criminal cases at any time based on new DNA and other scientific evidence will take effect across Maryland in January.
The Court of Appeals rule goes beyond legislation enacted this year, which wiped out a one-year time limit for felons convicted of murder, manslaughter and violent sex crimes to seek post-conviction DNA testing and reopen a case based on results. This rule erases the time limit for all inmates and covers scientific evidence beyond DNA, making it one of the broadest provisions of its type, advocates say.
Nationwide, there has been concern that prisons hold some wrongly convicted inmates. More than 70 felons, several of them on death row, have been freed largely on the strength of newer, more precise DNA testing.
J. Theodore Wieseman, counsel to the Office of the Public Defender, said the court rule gives his agency what it had been seeking from the General Assembly.
"It's very significant," Wieseman told the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, which was being briefed on the implementation of the law it approved this year. "It's one of the most far-reaching [rules] in the country, I would think," he said yesterday.
The legislation, which took effect Oct. 1, did not go as far as defense lawyers wanted. But it offers felons -- except death row inmates, who can approach the court with new evidence at any time -- the opportunity to have evidence preserved, get testing and have cases reopened if the results suggest they are innocent.
The new rule, adopted by the state's highest court this month, is scheduled to be signed Nov. 1. How many people the less restrictive measure is likely to affect is unclear, lawyers said in interviews.
"We are dealing with this window in time where you have a case where DNA was not available at the time. Had DNA been available at the time, it might have produced a better result for the defendant," said Byron L. Warnken, a professor at the University of Baltimore School of Law who handles post-conviction cases.
Most of those cases, he said, are likely to be murders and sex crimes.
Michele Nethercott, head of the forensic unit of the state public defender's office, said her office finds that in many cases, evidence that is 5 to 15 years old has been destroyed. She said, "The technology has evolved to the point that DNA is appearing in more and more cases where you never would have expected it, like burglaries."
The Maryland State's Attorneys Association backed the bill that passed and also supports this rule, said Leonard C. Collins Jr., Charles County state's attorney and president of the association.
Del. Samuel I. Rosenberg, a Baltimore Democrat, turned to the judiciary's Rules Committee, which advises the Court of Appeals, after withdrawing a bill similar to the rule this year.
"It is making a statement that our objective in the criminal justice system should be uniformly guilt or innocence. Your ability to proffer DNA evidence should not be limited to certain cases," he said.
The Rules Committee wanted to ensure that a person charged with a serious crime but convicted of a lesser one would have the same opportunity, said Joseph H. Murphy Jr., chief judge of the Court of Special Appeals and committee head.
At yesterday's session, Ronald Weich, counsel to the Washington-based Justice Project, urged senators to consider expanding the law. But he said it would be appropriate to wait a year or two to see what happens.