Getting tough on crime is a staple theme for many a politician.
But here in Massachusetts, which hasn't executed an inmate in 56
years, Gov. Mitt Romney is pushing capital punishment with a
provocative new twist.
Advances in forensic science, he argues, have made it possible to
adopt a death-penalty system so reliable that innocents on death row
can be made a thing of the past.
"Just as science can be used to free the innocent, it can be used
to identify the guilty," Mr. Romney said recently.
It's a controversial thesis, coming at a time when the American
public is rethinking the death penalty after certain death-row
inmates have been exonerated and several reports have found
persistent racial disparities. Yet Romney is trying to move one of
the nation's most liberal states - one of 12 without the death
penalty - in the opposite direction.
So last month, the Republican governor appointed a council of
scientific and legal luminaries to study how to build a more perfect
death-penalty statute. Reestablishing the death penalty, he argues,
would serve as an important deterrent for those individuals
responsible for the most heinous and violent crimes.
Joseph Hoffmann, an Indiana University law professor and cochair
of the council, says the goal is a death-penalty system so reliable
that he'd stake his own life on it. "Obviously, in a theoretical
sense, no human endeavor can be said to be perfect," he says. "At
the same time, it's quite fair and accurate to say that there is a
[higher] level of certainty and a level of confidence that we can
Experience in other states
Similar commissions established elsewhere, however, have
highlighted the limits of DNA evidence and suggest a foolproof death
penalty remains out of reach.
"There's no question the death penalty can be made better," says
attorney and author Scott Turow, who served on the Illinois
Commission on Capital Punishment. "But we will still convict a
certain number of innocent persons."
Thirteen states have appointed independent commissions to study
their death-penalty statutes in recent years. Their recommendations
suggest that DNA evidence is not a panacea for what lands innocents
on death row.
One problem is that only a fraction of homicides involves DNA
evidence. Murders ranging from a drive-by shooting to the Oklahoma
City bombing leave no DNA at the crime scene.
"We assume DNA evidence is available," says William Alexa, a
former Indiana state senator and current judge who served on
Indiana's committee. "That's not always the case."
Where DNA evidence is part of a case, forensic scientists may
still mishandle it, as scandals in Oklahoma and the FBI crime lab
have proved. …