Death, DNA and the Supreme Court

by jeeg 19. October 2010 04:31

In an age when DNA technology can help identify the guilty and avoid grave miscarriages of justice, states should not be allowed to block testing of available biological evidence before executing someone.

The Supreme Court heard arguments on Wednesday over a request by Henry Skinner, a Texas death row inmate, for DNA testing of blood, fingernail scrapings and hair found at the scene where his girlfriend and her two sons were murdered in 1993. In March, less than an hour before he was scheduled to die by lethal injection, the Supreme Court granted a stay of execution to consider taking up the matter of the untested evidence.

Seeking to avoid the legal doctrines and deadlines imposed by the Supreme Court and Congress to limit postconviction appeals, Mr. Skinner filed a civil rights action rather than a habeas corpus challenge. Sparring over that mechanistic distinction dominated much of Wednesday's argument and nearly obscured the larger problem of prosecutors’ selectively testing some DNA evidence but not all in a capital murder case.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor correctly noted that Mr. Skinner’s trial attorney made a strategic decision not to request DNA testing of the contested material in preparation for his trial, likely fearing the testing would further implicate his client.

But to disqualify Mr. Skinner now from obtaining the testing would elevate game-playing over truth-seeking and ignore the need to ensure, best as possible, that the right person has been convicted. Testing such evidence should not be left to a strategic decision; it should be standard in a serious criminal investigation.

There is a value in criminal law to the finality of verdicts and not permitting prisoners endless legal challenges to their convictions. The state should not execute prisoners. But since it does, the justices should be more concerned with the finality of executing someone when untested DNA evidence might shed light on his culpability and the state cannot be completely certain of his guilt.

In a lamentable 5-to-4 ruling in 2009, the court denied a free-standing right of prisoners to obtain postconviction DNA testing that might prove their innocence. The new case is a chance for course correction.

NY Times Editorial


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