Can You Build a Foolproof Death Penalty? ; While Other States Rethink Capital Punishment, Mass. Gov. Mitt Romney Asks Panel to Explore Its Reinstatement

By Seth Stern writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, November 5, 2003 | Go to article overview

Can You Build a Foolproof Death Penalty? ; While Other States Rethink Capital Punishment, Mass. Gov. Mitt Romney Asks Panel to Explore Its Reinstatement


Seth Stern writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


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 aspire to."

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. …

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