Questioning Capital Punishment: DNA Has Been Used to Exonerate a Number of Death Cow Inmates, Calling into Question the Reliability of the System

By Hammond, Sarah Brown | State Legislatures, September 2005 | Go to article overview

Questioning Capital Punishment: DNA Has Been Used to Exonerate a Number of Death Cow Inmates, Calling into Question the Reliability of the System


Hammond, Sarah Brown, State Legislatures


Convicted serial rapist and killer Michael Ross was on Connecticut's death row for 18 years. He was executed in May. Connecticut had not executed anyone in 44 years, most of Ross' life. As appeals are exhausted and execution dates close in on offenders like Ross, who were sentenced 10, 20 and even 30 years ago, the death penalty becomes real.

Today, 38 states have the death penalty. Recent cases in which DNA evidence was used to exonerate individuals on death row have increased the public's concern regarding certain flaws in the system. State legislators are of two minds on how to respond to the findings. Some are working to improve the integrity of the system. Others think the remedy is complete abolition of the death penalty. In both camps, there is a sense of urgency to ensure that no individual is wrongfully put to death.

Proponents argue that the death penalty brings criminals to justice and serves as a deterrent to killers who fear arrest, conviction and the ultimate death sentence. "If we execute murderers and there is in fact no deterrent effect, we have killed a bunch of murderers, if we fail to execute murderers, and doing so would in fact have deterred other murders, we have allowed the killing of a bunch of innocent victims. I would much rather risk the former. This, to me, is not a tough call," says John McAdams of Marquette University's Department of Political Science on the Web site Pro-Death Penalty.com. According to a 2004 Gallop Poll, 67 percent of Americans are in favor of the death penalty for a person convicted of murder.

On the other hand, opponents of the death penalty argue that it is applied arbitrarily, is discriminating and is unreliable. In a study by the U. S. General Accounting Office, race of the victim influenced decisions in 82 percent of cases reviewed. Those who murdered whites were found more likely to be sentenced to death than those who murdered blacks. In the years since the U.S. Supreme Court reenacted the death penalty, some 119 people have been released from death row because of new evidence of their innocence.

The fear of executing an innocent person is paramount in the public's perception of the death penalty, says Connecticut Representative Mike Lawlor. "Even those who are not philosophically against the death penalty see that, practically, it has many procedural problems. Even if everyone does not favor abolishing it, we see that people recognize the need for reform," he says.

Earlier this year, the Connecticut General Assembly's Judiciary Committee advanced a measure to abolish the death penalty. The legislation failed to pass the full House, and even if it had, it would have had all uncertain fate in the Senate and with the governor. But symbolically, the committee's attention and actions raised the issue to a new level in the state.

"Opposition to capital punishment has been raised because the legal process often further traumatizes the victims' families," Lawlor says. "The death penalty can put family members of the victim on a roller-coaster ride and it becomes cruel and unusual punishment for them."

But many families favor executing the offenders. Edwin Shelly, the father of one of Ross's victims, said it was time for Michael Ross "to face his punishment."

In the past two years, at least IS other states have introduced measures to abolish the death penalty without success. This year Illinois, Kansas, Kentucky, Maryland, Missouri, Montana, New Jersey, New Mexico, Tennessee and Washington did so.

LIMITING ITS USE

Legislatures are also responding to U.

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