A new law that took effect on Jan. 1 will allow better access to post-conviction DNA testing for people who say they’ve been wrongfully convicted of aggravated murder and other serious crimes.
The new measure amends statutes previously introduced in 2015 that said someone requesting a DNA test would have to show that specific evidence would lead to finding that they were "actually innocent," in effect having to vouch for their innocence before DNA could even be tested.
The new law opens up the process by eliminating gate-keeping language that would have prevented access to the discovery of evidence from the initial conviction.
Steve Wax is the legal director for the Oregon Innocence Project, an Oregon nonprofit focused on preventing and correcting wrongful convictions. Wax helped propose the initial 2015 legislation with the project and he was among a handful of advocates who testified for the newer changes last February. While the 2015 bill was a big leap forward for a modern standard of DNA testing, Wax said some of its language was still restrictive.
“There are still hurdles that need to be jumped through, but what a person has to prove is now more reasonable,” Wax said.
The Oregon Innocence Project has successfully assisted two men who have seen their convictions overturned thanks to better standards of DNA testing. Nicholas McGuffin's conviction was overturned thanks to previously undisclosed DNA evidence, revealing another man's DNA at the crime scene. He had served nine years of a 10-year prison sentence after being convicted of manslaughter in 2011 with a non-unanimous 10-2 verdict from the jury. Oregon is the only state in the country that allows for non-unanimous jury convictions in criminal felony cases.
Coos County District Attorney Paul Frasier decided not to pursue a retrial and McGuffin has been released.
Janis Puracal is the executive director with the Forensic Justice Project and represented McGuffin during his trial along with the Oregon Innocence Project.
“If there is DNA that can prove a person’s innocence, we want to know that,” Puracal said. “The changes to the statute give us a better opportunity to look critically at our justice system and right the wrongs.”
The Oregon Innocence Project is now working on a case with Jesse Johnson, a death row inmate who was charged with aggravated murder after the 1998 fatal stabbing of a Salem woman.
The Oregonian reported that Johnson and his attorneys requested 37 pieces of evidence to be tested, but that request was opposed and denied. Attorneys with the Oregon Innocence Project have since appealed.
“We are hopeful we will win the appeal under the old law. However, we are in the process of deciding whether to file under the new law with it’s changed standard,” Wax said.
Editor's note: This story has been updated to reflect the fact that Nicholas McGuffin has been released from state custody.