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Holder overturns DNA waivers

Attorney General Eric Holder speaks during a Medal of Valor ceremony in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building adjacent to the White House in Washington on September 22, 2010. The Medal of Valor is awarded to public safety officers who have exhibited exceptional courage, regardless of personal safety, in the attempt to save or protect others from harm. UPI/Roger L. Wollenberg
Attorney General Eric Holder speaks during a Medal of Valor ceremony in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building adjacent to the White House in Washington on September 22, 2010. The Medal of Valor is awarded to public safety officers who have exhibited exceptional courage, regardless of personal safety, in the attempt to save or protect others from harm. UPI/Roger L. Wollenberg | License Photo

WASHINGTON, Nov. 18 (UPI) -- U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder has overturned a Bush administration practice requiring defendants to waive their right to DNA testing, officials said.

Holder issued two memoranda Thursday dealing with the collection of DNA samples from federal arrestees, the U.S. Justice Department said.

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"DNA evidence is one of the most powerful tools available to the criminal justice system, and these new steps will ensure the department can use DNA to the greatest extent possible to solve crimes and ensure the guilty are convicted," Holder said. "Improving both the collection and the use of DNA evidence will help law enforcement and prosecutors keep communities safe."

Defense attorneys and DNA advocates welcomed Holder's decision, saying the DNA waiver denies prisoners the ability to prove their innocence, The Washington Post reported.

"It never made any sense to force people, as a condition of a plea, to give up their right to future DNA testing, particularly since we know that factually innocent people plead guilty," said Peter Neufeld, co-founder of the Innocence Project.

Holder announced his decision in memos to the nation's 93 attorneys general Thursday.

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Holder's decision is "a no-brainer. There should never be any bar to a person's ability to establish their innocence," said Steve Benjamin, president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.

Benjamin said using the waivers in guilty pleas essentially "gutted" the Innocence Protection Act of 2004, which for the first time allowed federal inmates to seek post-conviction DNA tests to prove their innocence.

The newspaper said the waivers have been part of the standard plea agreement for about five years; defense lawyers said clients are forced to sign the waivers or lose the benefits of a plea agreement that could reduce their sentences.

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