FORT WORTH, Texas — An informative roundtable discussion took place the University of North Texas Health Science Center, Tuesday, just moments before what could be the talk of the town for renewed DNA justice.
U.S. Senator John Cornyn hosted Fort Worth community leaders, crime lab experts, law enforcement, and community members as they discussed his soon-to-be introduced Justice For All Reauthorization Act.
During the roundtable talk, Cornyn highlighted the bipartisan legislation meant to help the state's crime lab case backlog by funding more DNA testing.
"We are reauthorizing an existing law, but we are improving and expanding its coverage as well," he said.
The bill would help strengthen crime victims' rights and programs; improve resources for forensic labs; protect the innocent with better access to post-conviction DNA testing; and refine sexual assault response training for law enforcement.
For Texas, the legislation renewal will mean $2.5 million for DNA analysis of sexual assault testing kits through Aug. 30, 2022, which is the same amount awarded the previous year.
Cornyn, previously a judge, invited one of the victims the legislation is intended to help: Lavinia Masters, who was attacked at a very young age but waited years to learn who did it.
Masters, an advocate for other sexual assault victims, said she was just 13 years old in 1985 when someone broke into her family's Dallas home and raped her at knifepoint, she shared.
Twenty years later, DNA helped identified the accused serial rapist who was already in prison for other attacks. But while waiting for justice, Masters' case lost ground twice due to the statute of limitations. Evidence from DNA samples collected by investigators remained on the shelf of the evidence room for two decades, before technology even allowed for DNA testing and the case got court approval for that testing.
But not only would the proposed legislation help victims, the bill would also help those wrongfully accused, Cornyn said.
DNA exoneree Johnny Pinchback attended the roundtable talks, too. Pinchback spent 27 years behind bars for a crime he didn't do. A crime lab in Dallas eventually was able to use newer technology to process DNA in his case, which proved he was innocent.
However, it wasn't an easy process. One of the challenges Pinchback ran into in his search for justice was getting court approval for the DNA Testing.
"The problem is with the prosecutors and the judges that won't sign off on this, to release people still locked away," Pinchback explained.
The reauthorization legislation is a good move in the right direction, as far as Fort Worth Community Leader Cory Session is concerned. He attended the roundtable as an observer.
Session works closely with other community leaders and serves as vice president for the Innocence Project of Texas. The organization raises private donations to help fund DNA testing for cases involving people who are serving time and believe forensics would help prove their innocence. The organization receives a limited amount of public funding to help pay for lab work.
Session said he wanted to see more Conviction Integrity Units across the State of Texas, adding he is concerned about innocent people serving time in smaller jurisdictions across Texas who don't have crime lab funding or a process to help get cases before a judge. He said he believes this bill would do that.
"The funding is there," he said. "The money is there to help create more Conviction Integrity Units, and there's no excuse not to do a DNA test, because the funding will be there from the federal government."
"To those people who are in prison and waiting on DNA testing, this is a beacon of hope," he added. "This funding will help advance DNA testing."
Session estimated there are about 200-plus cases throughout the state of Texas awaiting some kind of court approval for DNA testing.
For people like Johnny Pinchback, the bill sends a message of hope to people awaiting justice.
"Patience and strength is something you got to have," he said.