Following the discovery in Illinois that 13 convicted prisoners on death row were in fact
innocent, Republican Governor George Ryan in January 2000 instituted the nation's first
moratorium on state executions. Ryan announced, "Until I can be sure with moral certainty
that no innocent man or woman is facing a lethal injection, no one will meet that
Current Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich has continued Ryan's policy, and other states,
including Colorado, Texas, Maryland and California, have followed Illinois in pursuing
death penalty moratoria. These appeals to suspend executions are driven by the same logic
Ryan employed: the system cannot countenance the death penalty at the risk of condemning
Until recently, most on the right have dismissed arguments that capital punishment is
barbaric, inconsistently applied, disproportionately meted out to minorities and the
poor, and an ineffective deterrent.2 But with the availability of new
sientific tools like DNA evidence, conservative politicians are faced with the sobering
reality that science can now irrefutably prove the innocence of many on death
row.3 Since 1989, 159 inmates have been exonerated by post-conviction DNA
evidence, more than triple the number of innocent people exonerated during the previous
15-year period -- an embarrassing statistic for longtime Republican death penalty
But imposing a moratorium on the death penalty is not equivalent to eliminating it. In
the long run, once the innocent have been cleared from death row and the "mistakes" are
but a faint residue on the public memory, it's just as likely that DNA evidence will be
used in defense of capital punishment. This is because DNA has just as much capacity to
condemn the guilty as it has to exonerate the innocent. Robert Pambianco, Chief Policy
Counsel for the Washington Legal Foundation, acknowledged this possibility: "If DNA
evidence can be used to prove that the wrong man was convicted, then it can be used to
remove any remaining doubt about a prisoner's guilt. Far from undermining confidence in
capital punishment, DNA evidence will only help increase the certainty about the guilt of
those sentenced to die."5
According to Virginia-based scientist Anthony Brooks, DNA evidence is now being used more
frequently to confirm a person's guilt than it is to prove his innocence.6
At the Virginia State crime lab, Dr. Paul Ferrara says that his colleagues now yield
almost two "cold hits" a day, which occurs when a suspect's profile is matched with DNA
evidence from the crime scene.6
In the last year, Republican politicians have begun using these instances to question the
utility of death sentence moratoria, employing the language of science to buttress the
case for capital punishment. On July 21, Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney announced
plans to re-instate a "foolproof, no doubt" death penalty statute. Romney has already
supported efforts to beef up State Police crime labs and broaden the application of DNA
evidence in the courtroom.7 A similar defense of capital punishment is being
mounted by Virginia Attorney General Jerry Kilgore, who argues that DNA evidence will
provide "a better opportunity to determine if we have a serial killer, or if we have
someone who has committed crimes over and over again." Whether we should take
conservative politicians lie Romney and Kilgore -- who are possibly using the authority
of science to buttress a priori moral beliefs -- at the their word, is a matter of
But no test is full-proof; condoms break, guns backfire, and sometimes DNA evidence is
useless. Furthermore, evidence can be applied only in the relatively exceptional cases in
which the police can obtain evidence suited to DNA analysis, such as blood, hair, or
DNA evidence can also be wildly misapplied. Witness the debacle unfolding in Houston,
where forensic psychologists are under independent audit from the Texas Department of
Public Safety for manufacturing fraudulent DNA evidence to convict as many 1,300 innocent
people. The investigation has already led to the exoneration of one innocent man who had
spent five years in prison, whom fraudulent DNA evidence had linked to the rape of a
According to City Councilwoman Carol Alvarado, the Harris County, TX, crime lab contained
scientists whose methods were sloppy and tainted by prejudice, whose surroundings
resembled an adolescent's basement dwelling after an all-night rager: "These were not
just leaks; these were holes. There were trash buckets and water buckets throughout the
lab. They were having to move tables around, because some of the leaks were near and
sometimes above where the analysis was occurring."9
Can we really trust DNA samples deluged by dirty water and examined by fools? As Max
Weber warned, prejudice and stupidity sometimes masquerade as science. And much like the
phrenology experiments that endeavored to prove the intellectual inferiority of
African-Americans, there is the risk that the more blindly we trust DNA evidence, the
more dangerous and disingenuous its application will become.
- Illinois Governor Halts Executions. Moratorium News.
- Governor George Ryan: An Address on the Death Penalty. The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.
- Travis County Commissioners Court Passes Moratorium Resolution. Texas Moratorium Network
- Facts about Wrongful Convictions. Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project.
- The Guilty Are Being Executed. Pro-Death Penalty.com.
- DNA and the Science of Truth. WBUR - Boston NPR.
- Massachusetts Governor's Proposed Death Penalty Law Meets Strong Opposition at Hearing. Death Penalty Information Center.
- UCI Professor Finds DNA Laboratory Errors That Sent Wrong Man to Prison. Scientific Testimony.
- Tex. Lawmakers Probe Lab Over Reports of Tainted DNA Evidence. Washington Post.