Wednesday, April 26, 2006

DNA tests free man after 18 years behind bars

yet another example of the fairly high error rate in our criminal justice system:

Based on a second round of DNA tests, the convicted killer of a restaurant manager may be granted a new trial -- or possibly even cleared of the crime -- after spending nearly 18 years behind bars.

In 1989, Drew Whitley was found guilty of second-degree murder and sentenced to life for killing Noreen Malloy, 22.

Our justice system will never be perfect, of course. But the large number of cases like this highlight just how error-prone the system can be. Perhaps we can never totally fix that, but we can limit the damage.

For example, I don't have a big ethical problem with the death penalty. But I have all sorts of practical problems with it, from the expense to racial and economic bias to the error rate I mention above. For all those reasons there should be a requirement that the death penalty can only be applied if there is unequivocal evidence of guilt. And by that I mean an uncoerced confession, videotape or (preferably) DNA evidence. Eyewitness testimony, other forensic evidence, circumstantial evidence -- it's all too unreliable. If that's all the prosecutor has, they can still go for life in prison. But the death penalty should be off the table.

We should reserve the death penalty for truly heinous crimes in which there is no credible doubt about the defendant's guilt. I'm talking Timothy McVeigh here, or serial killers, or cold-blooded executions. Because the true crime would be if we executed an innocent person (as we undoubtedly have done). Life behind bars is cold comfort to the wrongly imprisoned, but at least they're still alive and able to continue challenging their conviction.

If that means that executions almost entirely cease, I'm okay with that. The success of the death penalty should be measured in how accurately it is applied, not how often.

We should also have a compensation program for the wrongly convicted. We stole their life from them; the least we can do is try in some small way to make it up to them.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

I find it rather ironic that DNA seems to be used now for the benefit of the defendent...but not always. Case in point: just the other day in the Duke case, all of the white men tested were not a match for the woman who is claiming rape. But her lawyer and certain people who seem to want these Duke lacrosse players to be guilty have discounted those findings. It was said in that case that it doesn't matter because in 80% of rape cases there is NO it shouldn't matter. But this are telling me it DOES matter.

I'm confused. Which is it?

4/26/2006 4:04 PM  
Blogger Sean Aqui said...

It matters in both cases. Just because there's no DNA doesn't mean you have to toss the case. I'm just arguing that without near-absolute proof of guilt prosecutors shouldn't be able to seek the death penalty.

4/26/2006 4:24 PM  

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