Felons who serve part of their prison sentence in the community may now have the right to publicly funded DNA testing, thanks to a court victory won by a student representing the University of Washington School of Law’s Innocence Project Northwest.
“It’s a big victory that expands the right of access to DNA testing for individuals we represent in the future,” said Jacqueline McMurtrie, UW professor of law and director of the project, which she founded in 1997.
Student Jacob Dishion worked with classmate Kelly Paradis and Anna Tolin, a visiting lecturer and the project’s deputy director, as well as other law students, to argue the case against veteran attorneys for the state of Washington in the case of State v. Slattum.
The state argued that only felons actually in jail or prison qualify for publicly funded DNA testing under a 2001 state law, and that extending such tests to those in restricted “community custody” — who outnumber prison convicts by about two to one — would be prohibitively expensive and overburden the state crime lab.
But a three-judge panel of the Court of Appeals, Division One — which covers Washington’s King, Snohomish, Skagit, Island and Whatcom counties — ruled in the Innocence Project’s favor. In an opinion issued Feb. 19, the court unanimously ruled that felons serving part of their sentences in the community are eligible for publicly funded DNA testing if they file a qualifying claim that they are innocent. The state has 30 days from Feb. 19 in which to file an appeal to the state Supreme Court.
At issue was whether statutory language referring to “imprisonment” includes sentences served under community custody. The court held that since the word is ambiguous, it was bound under the “rule of lenity” to grant the petition. The rule of lenity holds that if a criminal statute has been deemed ambiguous regarding punishments, the ambiguity should be resolved toward the more lenient punishment.
The ruling marks the first time the UW’s Innocence Project Northwest won an appellate case with a student presenting the oral argument.
“It was a huge thrill to find out that all the work we put into it translated a positive result,” said Dishion, a third-year UW law student from Eugene, Ore. “I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little nervous going into it.”
The Innocence Project Northwest, part of a national network, represents low-income people in Washington who are serving long prison terms, claim their innocence and no longer have a right to court-appointed counsel. The project also trains law students in legislative and public policy advocacy on wrongful conviction issues.
This is the first appellate ruling on this issue in Washington, establishing a precedent for other state courts.