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California and the West

DNA Testing in Criminal Cases to Expand

Legislation: Davis signs three bills to use sampling to help free the wrongly convicted and to identify suspects. Another law will let women give up their newborns.


SACRAMENTO — Saluting the growing power of DNA testing, Gov. Gray Davis on Thursday signed three bills expanding use of the scientific sampling technique to help free the wrongly convicted and turn up suspects in unsolved crimes.

In a hectic day of bill signings and vetoes, Davis also signed a bill designed to encourage unwed teen mothers to give away their newborn babies rather than discard them to die in dumpsters or roadside ditches.

Additionally, Davis signed legislation preventing the use of "Napa" on California wine that is not made mostly from Napa Valley grapes, despite opposition from Central Valley grape farmers who say they could lose millions of dollars as a result.

In a fourth significant act, the governor approved a bill that will allow registered voters who do not belong to a political party to vote in a party's primary election, if party rules allow it.

Davis has until midnight Saturday to decide the fate of several hundred bills approved in the closing days of this year's legislative session. On Wednesday, he dealt with 110 measures.

Of the DNA bills, the most far-reaching measure will offer testing to prisoners who claim they are innocent and can prove the test would have led to exoneration or a shorter sentence at trial.

Supporters call it one the most dramatic changes to California's criminal justice system in decades. Since 1989, DNA tests have exonerated 72 American prisoners--four from California. Eight of the inmates were on death row; nearly all had exhausted their appeals.

Inmates cleared by a DNA sample have typically had to fight long legal battles for the right to a test. Among them was Herman Atkins of Los Angeles, imprisoned more than 13 years for a rape a DNA test finally proved he didn't commit.

"I'm elated that somebody has stepped up and accepted the responsibility of getting this ball rolling in the direction of reform," Atkins said in an interview. "I think people will be surprised to see how many innocent people are released."

The bill's author, Senate leader John Burton (D-San Francisco), called SB 1342, one of the most important measures of his 29-year political career. Aside from freeing the innocent, the bill could force "the real perpetrators of these crimes" to face consequences they thought they had escaped, Burton said.

In a statement, the governor said that "DNA testing will assure to all that the guilty are truly guilty and the innocent truly innocent." Davis said that as a supporter of capital punishment, he felt a "special burden" to ensure those on death row were properly convicted.

In addition to the Burton bill, Davis signed a measure requiring DNA testing of the unidentified remains of more than 2,000 people stored in coroner's lockers around the state. The results will be logged into a database and compared with samples provided by relatives of missing children and adults.

The database--funded by a $2 increase in the cost of a death certificate--is aimed at helping solve crimes and enable families of missing persons to "gain closure and continue with their lives." Sen. Jackie Speier (D-Hillsborough) carried the bill, SB 1818.

Davis gave his blessing to AB 2814, which allows police to compare a suspect's DNA profile with evidence from unsolved crimes. Current law limits such sampling to those convicted of a crime.

The abandoned-babies bill, SB 1368 by Senate Republican leader Jim Brulte of Rancho Cucamonga, will enable women to anonymously surrender babies up to 3 days old at any hospital emergency room without fear of being charged with child abandonment. If the mother changes her mind within two weeks, she can retrieve the infant.

Aimed at teenagers, Brulte's measure reflects efforts in other states to combat what officials say has become a national epidemic. Although no one keeps official records, supporters of the bill contend that too often unmarried teen mothers, who have hidden their pregnancies from families and friends, discard their newborns out of fear and desperation.

The chief advocate of the bill, Debi Faris, a San Bernardino County mother who operates a nonprofit cemetery for abandoned infants, said the new law will give unwanted newborns "a chance to live in homes where they will be loved and nurtured."

Truth in Wine Labeling

The wine bill was pushed through the Legislature in the closing days of the session by the Napa Valley Vintners' Assn., an elite group of 179 Napa winemakers who say the use of the Napa name on wines that do not contain Napa grapes dilutes the high-quality image established by their famous valley north of San Francisco.

The legislation, SB 1293 by Sen. Wes Chesbro (D-Arcata), is unusual in that it essentially targets one man, Central Valley bulk wine producer Fred T. Franzia, whose family owns Bronco Wine Co. in Ceres.

In January, Franzia paid $42 million to Napa's Beringer Wine Estates for its Napa Ridge label, which enjoys an exemption from federal rules requiring local content for geographically named wine labels.

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