Kentucky currently allows death row inmates to seek DNA evidence to prove their innocence but the avenue is not open to other felony prisoners.
Bell’s bill and a similar measure already passed by the state Senate would change that. The Senate bill is sponsored by Sen. John Schickel, R-Union, but it differs from Bell’s bill in that it would not apply to those who plead guilty or accept an Alford Plea.
(An Alford Plea allows a defendant to avoid pleading guilty while recognizing the weight of the evidence is likely enough to convict him. Usually in such cases, an Alford Plea has been negotiated in return for a lighter sentence.)
Some senators objected to that exception, favored by prosecutors, because they contend – as does Bell – that an Alford Plea is not an admission of guilt. And Joe Blaney of the Innocence Project, a national effort to use DNA to prove the innocence of wrongfully convicted prisoners, said innocent defendants sometimes plead guilty to avoid what they fear are inevitable lengthier sentences.
Bell said he is willing to discuss with prosecutors their concern about guilty pleas but he wants to keep allow those taking Alford Pleas the opportunity to later prove their innocence.
House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, a former state Attorney General who often sides with prosecutors on law enforcement issues, said this week he prefers Bell’s version. Even Schickel originally wanted to apply the bill to all felony convictions and agreed to the change to get it passed in the Senate.
Schickel said even with the change, the bill represents a significant improvement over current law.
Bell’s bill now goes to the House floor. If it passes there without changes, the two bills will go to conference committee between the two chambers to reconcile any differences.