Bill could pave way for DNA testing for state inmates

COLUMBIA -- In Horry County, 41-year-old convicted sex offender Jonathan Smith thinks DNA testing will prove his innocence.

Locked up for 24 years and eligible for parole in May, Smith wants evidence against him measured against the latest technology has to offer.

Smith, who was sentenced to 55 years for first-degree criminal sexual conduct, has successfully petitioned the courts to have evidence against him submitted for DNA testing in a private laboratory.

If a bill in the General Assembly passes, more prisoners could have evidence used to convict them tested.

South Carolina, which has 24,000 inmates, is one of six states that has no state law giving convicts a path to possible exoneration by way of DNA testing.

Statistically, the odds are long -- 1,000 to 1, some say -- that a DNA test will exonerate Smith. But what if DNA testing can eliminate Smith as a suspect or pinpoint someone else?

"There is nothing unique about us that we should have this state lacking this very useful technology," said Sen. Gerald Malloy, D-Darlington. "We have some individuals who are incarcerated (who) are innocent."

Malloy, an attorney, has filed a bill known as the Post-Conviction DNA Procedures Act. If passed and signed by the governor, it would give convicts the right to apply for DNA testing of evidence in the county he was convicted.

The court could dismiss the application. If an application is accepted, then, the solicitor would have to ensure evidence is preserved, victims and the state's attorney general are notified and the case is docketed.

Only one S.C. convict, Perry Mitchell, has been exonerated by post-conviction DNA test results. That happened 10 years ago.

Solicitors, public defenders, the state Department of Corrections and victim advocates are all wrestling with how Malloy's bill will affect them. They're working to hammer out a compromise they all can live with.

"The Legislature needs to be very, very careful before passing a statute like this," said 5th Circuit Solicitor Barney Giese, who prosecutes cases in Richland and Lexington counties.

Giese said crime victims would be burdened with reliving their cases, and law enforcement would be burdened with preserving and finding old evidence.

Malloy said he thinks a program could be operated for much less than the $9 million to $10 million a year estimated by the Attorney General's office.

The bill passed out of the subcommittee and could be taken up in full committee this week.

"I fully expect this bill to pass," Malloy said. "I see no philosophical reason for it to fail."