Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

After the Execution, a DNA Test ; Death Penalty Debate

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

After the Execution, a DNA Test ; Death Penalty Debate

Article excerpt

It's a claim that district attorneys, prison wardens, and even some governors routinely make: Not one innocent person has been executed on my watch.

Now, due to a historic court decision, the resolve behind such claims could be shaken. A judge has allowed a group of news organizations to test DNA in the case of a Georgia man executed four years ago.

If conclusive, the results could have profound ramifications beyond the death of one man. They may significantly shift the focus of the death-penalty debate, and could shape the fall elections (especially in light of Texas Gov. George W. Bush's recent statement that no innocent person has been put to death during his tenure).

The Boston Globe, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, The Macon Telegraph, and CBS News have teamed up to pay for DNA testing in the case of Ellis Wayne Felker, executed by Georgia in 1996 for raping and murdering a teenage girl. Strands of his hair and her fingernail scrapings were sent to a lab in California last week; the results could be in by the end of the month.

"Look, if it ever could be shown that a person was wrongfully executed, that ... would dramatically alter the death penalty debate in this country," says Ben Bradlee Jr., deputy managing editor for projects at The Boston Globe.

News organizations occasionally hire experts to analyze data, such as auditors to study budgets or scientists to look at environmental projects. But this DNA test - which could cost as much as $30,000 - takes investigative reporting to another level, and may indicate that many in the media regard the death penalty as ripe for examination.

"Generally speaking, it's a positive trend," says Roy Peter Clark, a senior scholar at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Fla. "If [the media's] purpose is somehow wrapped up in a search for truth and meaning, helping people figure out if they want the state taking lives is pretty high on the list of civic responsibilities."

Recent exonerations

Even as many states have streamlined the appeals process in an effort to speed up executions, DNA tests are pointing up the fallibility of capital punishment. In the past decade, DNA testing has exonerated some 70 inmates, eight of whom were on death row.

"To me, that shows the legal appeals process serves a purpose," says Jim Walls, director of projects at The Atlanta Journal- Constitution. "The debate is more than just whether the death penalty is fair or moral. It's whether it is applied fairly. We're trying to shed some light on that."

Unusual as it may sound, the current case isn't the first of its kind. In 1997, after Joseph O'Dell III was put to death for raping and murdering a woman, the Roman Catholic diocese of Richmond asked a Virginia judge for access to the evidence in his case.

Because DNA testing was not widely available when O'Dell was tried in 1986, rudimentary blood tests were used to convict him. …

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