last updated October 15, 2004
Over the past two decades, hundreds of wrongfully convicted persons, including 115 individuals on death row, have been found innocent of the crimes for which they were convicted. DNA testing has played an important role in the exoneration equation.
DNA, which stands for deoxyribonucleic acid, is the substance that makes up chromosomes and carries the genetic code responsible for determining the unique characteristics of all living beings. In the early 1980's, British scientist Dr. Alec Jeffreys invented a method to capture a DNA fingerprint on film, thus making it possible to compare the pattern in one sample with that of another. The technique, known as RFLP, was useful in cases where the DNA samples were pristine. This was not, however, often the case with DNA samples taken at crime scenes or from crime victims.
In response to this problem, the Cetus Corporation of California developed a new technique, known as PCR, that was capable of obtaining results from a degraded DNA sample, rendering DNA more useful in crime scene investigation. By using the PCR method, forensic scientists were able to isolate a specific genetic sequence and then make copies of that sequence. Using the copies, scientists are now able to analyze the samples and create a profile that is unique to an individual. Improvements in the PCR method have rendered the probability of a random match one in billions.
This revolution in DNA testing now allows scientists to reconstruct the truth of a given crime. Called "the gold standard of innocence" by Peter Neufeld of the Innocence Project of New York, DNA testing is seen by many as a much-needed tool in the reformation of the U.S. criminal justice system. Scientific evidence can now conclusively prove or disprove identity. This concrete evidence can serve as a remedy to possible eyewitness error, unreliable informants, racial bias, false confessions, prosecutorial misconduct, political pressures, system corruption, and poor legal representation that has plagued the criminal justice system since its inception.
As a result of this new technology, DNA testing has played an important role in pre-arrest and pre-trial criminal proceedings. Moreover, it has played a life or death role in the post-conviction process of capital cases. Thanks to DNA, the lives of 12 death row inmates who were found to have been falsely convicted and sentenced to die have been saved. Since the advent of DNA as a capital appeals tool, support for alternatives to the death penalty has increased. In May 2004 Gallup sponsored a poll, which found that Americans, in ever-increasing numbers, prefer a sentence of life without parole rather than the death penalty for those convicted of murder. Forty-six percent of respondents favored life imprisonment over the death penalty, up from forty-four percent surveyed in May of 2003.
A few high-profile cases, including those of Kirk Bloodsworth and Earl Washington have also helped sway public opinion regarding the death penalty. Kirk Bloodsworth was convicted of the killing and sexual assault of a nine-year-old girl. He was released after having spent nine years in prison, including two years on death row, after DNA evidence conclusively excluded him as the perpetrator. Similarly convicted was Earl Washington, an African American with an I.Q. of only 69, who had spent eighteen years in prison for the rape and murder of a white woman. He was granted clemency only hours before his execution as a result of DNA evidence proving that he did not commit the crime. Today, more than 30 states have enacted laws that permit some form of post-conviction DNA testing.
Though much progress has been made in recent years allowing offenders greater access to DNA testing, funding for such programs has still proved to be a major issue for some jurisdictions. In response to this problem, a bill named the Advancing Justice Through DNA Technology Act of 2003 has been proposed. The bill would appropriate approximately 1.3 billion dollars to reform the criminal justice system and place an emphasis on implementing the new DNA technology.
A provision of the bill, called the Innocence Protection Act, authorizes much-needed funding to defray the costs of post-conviction DNA testing. Also included in the package is funding for improving state legal services in death penalty cases. Other provisions include a prohibition on the destruction of biological evidence in federal criminal cases while the defendant remains incarcerated, an expansion of the DNA database system (Combined DNA Index System or CODIS), the establishment of a new Forensic Science Commission to investigate new DNA technology, and tougher accrediting and auditing measures for public crime labs. The bill passed by an overwhelming majority in the House of Representatives and is currently awaiting a vote by the full Senate after having passed the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Support for the new DNA technology can be found on both sides of the death penalty debate. Opponents of the death penalty point to the number of death row inmates who were found to be actually innocent of their capital crimes as proof that the system does not work and should be abandoned. Proponents of the death penalty also support DNA testing as it can conclusively prove guilt and act as a procedural safeguard against error. One thing is certain; the advent of DNA technology has brought the criminal justice system closer to achieving its goal of finding the truth in a matter and in the process has saved the lives of many innocent victims.
Inside Out Documentaries: Testing DNA and the Death Penalty by Anthony Brooks, Inside Out Documentaries: DNA and the Science of Truth by Anthony Brooks, The Washington Post When DNA Meets Death Row, It's the System That's Tested by Lois Romano December 12, 2003, The Center for Policy Alternatives Overview on Death Penalty Reform, SpeakOut.Com Does DNA Technology Warrant a Death Penalty Moratorium? By Barbara McCuen May 3, 2000, U.S. News & World Reports DNA and the Death Penalty by Dan McGraw and Toni Locy June 12, 2000, Center for Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern Law What is DNA? , Highlights of Advancing Justice Through DNA Technology Act of 2003 , Innocence Protection Act of 2001 Section-by-Section Summary , New York Daily News DNA's Truths Should End Death Penalty June 19, 2003, USA Today JusticeDept: DNA Tests for Guilty Jam System, Authorities Don't Want Petitions to be Made Easier by Richard Willing May 13, 2004, FCNL Beyond Innocence: The Dark Side of DNA Testing, Gallup Poll Decreased Support for Death Penalty When Compared with Life Sentence