DNA Testing and the Death Penalty
In the U.S., as of May 2001, 88 persons, in 22 states, including 10 death row inmates, have been exonerated by use of DNA tests. The increasing use of DNA testing to help confirm the innocence or guilt in capital cases is one among many reforms that will help ensure that innocent people are not sentenced to death.
Desoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) is an essential molecule that is part of every cell in our body. Essential, because it enables an embryonic cell to become and exist as a functioning being.
DNA also has another important property: its uniqueness. While human and animal DNA's are remarkably alike, modern science can reliably and with great accuracy distinguish between the DNA's of individuals. Unique to an individual (except in the case of identical twins and bone marrow transplant recipients), unchanging throughout one's life, and found in all one's cells, DNA is a reliable identifier. DNA testing on biological samples such as skin, saliva, semen, blood or hair can help convict or exonerate with great accuracy. But only if the biological evidence is properly collected, preserved and kept from contamination. And only if the analysis is done correctly. Under those conditions DNA testing is the modern improved version of fingerprinting.
It's important to know that DNA testing is a two-edged sword. No national data are available on the number of DNA test results that affirmed guilt, but of the cases subjected to DNA testing by the Innocence Project (a program of the Cardozo School of Law in New York) about half confirmed guilt.
Many instances of the use of DNA tests to rectify the horrible "mistakes" of our criminal justice system can be cited. In the sidebar are just two recent examples.
Although invaluable, DNA testing cannot always be put to use. In many cases, because of the nature of the crime, a DNA test cannot identify the murderer. In other cases DNA samples were not collected at the crime scene and preserved in a state suitable for testing today, or DNA testing of sufficient sophistication either was not available or not performed. And most significant, in some cases relevant samples may no longer be at hand because the evidence was destroyed.
For many inmates the most important obstacle to DNA testing is the fact that in many jurisdictions officials refuse to enable inmates to have evidence tested using modern DNA testing methods, arguing that this would reopen too many old cases. Perhaps, though unstated, they fear that wrongful convictions would highlight the many "mistakes" of the criminal justice system and provide more fuel for the increasing calls for a pause in executions until we can be sure it is properly and fairly applied, and without the risk of executing the innocent.
A Gallup Poll, conducted in March 2000 found that 92% of Americans say those convicted before the technology was available should be given the opportunity to submit to DNA tests now - on the chance those tests might show their innocence. Thus this has become an important political issue.
This spring, legislatures of 28 states discussed DNA post-conviction testing proposals. Fourteen of the 38 death penalty states (Arizona, California, Delaware, Florida, Idaho, Illinois, Maryland, New York, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia and Washington) now give inmates, albeit to different extents, the right to DNA testing.
At the federal level, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and Rep. William Delahunt (D-MA) introduced the "Innocence Protection Act" (S. 486 and H.R. 912). It would allow prisoners on death row to request DNA testing on evidence from their case that is still in government possession and that could help establish their innocence. With about 200 co-sponsors in both houses these bills have a good chance of enactment.
Frank Lee Smith, Florida
cleared (after death) in 2000
Mr. Smith was convicted of the rape and murder of a child. After the trial and sentencing the chief witness recanted her testimony. But Smith nevertheless was scheduled for execution. He died of cancer in January 2000, while on death row before the completion of the DNA test results that proved his innocence ten months later.