Cuomo throws his full weight behind a DNA bill, without ‘other’ issues

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Andrew Cuomo. (saebaryo via flickr)
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In the weeks since Governor Andrew Cuomo mentioned a new all-crimes DNA database in his State of the State speech last month, the administration delegated Lieutenant Governor and former Rochester police chief Bob Duffy, to make the rounds, appearing with district attorneys all across the state to rally support for the expansion.

Today, announcing the support of all 62 of the state's district attorneys, it was the governor's turn.

At a morning press conference in the Capitol's Red Room, Cuomo disregarded the concerns lodged by some criminal-justice-reform advocates, and made an urgent, forceful speech for expanding the database without delay.

"Why wouldn't you want to solve more crimes?" he asked. "Why wouldn't you want to get guilty people off the street if you knew you had access to the information? Why wouldn't you want to use the information? If you knew you could exonerate a person who was wrongfully convincted who is sitting in prison, why wouldn't you want access to the information?

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"It is inexplicable, where you can be in a position to say, I know we have the information, and I know it might be helpful, and I know that it's not a civil rights issue or a privacy issue, I just don't want to have access to that information. It is inexplicable."

Advocates have complained that selling the bill as a way to prevent wrongful convictions is misleading, and hoped to use the bill as leverage to enact reforms they say would do more to protect the accused, like videotaping custodial interrogations and overhauling the process of police line-ups. 

But the administration has rebuffed those efforts.

In Manhattan earlier this month, Duffy said a bill passed by the State Senate, which did not include those measures, was "verbatim" what the governor wanted, and today the governor said it himself.

"I don't want to play the normal Albany game with this bill, which is, let's use this bill to accomplish unrelated things that we want to get done anyway," Cuomo told reporters after his remarks. "This bill is about DNA and the use of DNA, and the use of DNA to prove guilt or prove innocence. And this is the bill we want to pass."

Cuomo signaled he might be open to some compromise from the Assembly, which has largely sided with the reformers, but only on matters strictly related to DNA.

"Let's deal with this issue on the merits of this issue, and not as leveraging and bargaining for other issues," he said. "If the Assembly has bona fide issues about the use of DNA—concerns, safeguards—then let's deal with it. But let's not make this bill a vehicle to debate other issues."

What constitutes a bona fide issue is likely to be of some debate.

Assemblyman Joe Lentol, who has pushed unsuccessfully for reforms in previous expansions, told me earlier this month that he had already pared the line-up reforms from his current bill, but was hoping to still include the videotaping of interrogations, since many of the innocent people exonerated by DNA had been convicted on the basis of wrongful confessions.

Asked about the relatively few exonerations from DNA, relative to the state's high number of wrongful convictions, Cuomo said, "Just because the DNA in the past has been helpful in making more convictions than exonerations isn't a reason not to do it, right? And you would now have more exonerations if you increased the size of the database."

Cuomo's speech seemed to be the climax of the administration's efforts to move the bill, and he cited the "overwhelming breadth of support" from law enforcement. (The accompanying press release, at 4,000 words and with quotes from 37 different people, was equally overwhelming.)

"I want to get this bill done, that's what I'm trying to communicate," Cuomo said. "It is an injustice that this bill has not passed before now, and knowing what we know, that we haven't acted on it. So I fully hope and am committed to doing everything I can do to get this bill passed this year. No excuses."