10/12/2010

Comment on Special Feature: Texas death Row DNA case (Part 2) (SCOTUSblog, Oct. 11, 2010)http://www.scotusblog.com/2010/10/special-feature-texas-death-row-dna-case/

 

SCOTUSblog is in the middle of a three-part series on an interesting case.  On Wednesday, October 13 the Supreme Court will hear arguments on Skinner v, Switzer, a capital case wherein a man sentenced to death for the murders of his girlfriend and her two sons is challenging the decision not to seek DNA testing of all DNA samples found at the crime scene although they may possibly exonerate him.  Mr. Skinner contends that he is innocent – the murders were actually committed by his girlfriend’s uncle, an alcoholic with violent tendencies.  Mr. Skinner contends that he was drunk and high during the episode, and toxicology reports confirmed that any normal person with as much alcohol and drugs in his system as Mr. Skinner had at the time would be, at the very least, comatose if not dead.  Several key pieces of evidence – including hairs found in Skinner’s girlfriend’s hand and a windbreaker near the bodies, were not tested for DNA and Mr. Skinner feels confident that, if they had been tested, they would have shown that his girlfriend’s uncle and not Mr. Skinner was the murderer.

 

Let’s step back from this issue for a moment – in comparison with what we have to gain, what really do we have to lose from allowing this DNA testing to take place?  In theory, at least, our criminal justice system is designed to be very “defense-friendly” – the defendant is the person with, at the very least, his freedom (at most, his entire life) at stake.  Especially in capital cases, we should do everything in our power to ensure that the man being put to death for a crime is the one who actually committed it.  Hank Skinner’s very flesh and blood are on the line – the fact that a man will lose his life over this should be striking.  Should the DNA test confirm, or at least not disprove, that Mr. Skinner committed these crimes, his conviction and sentence will stand.  But what if they implicate another in the crime – should he be granted another trial?  I argue that he should – a human life is too precious to base such a grave decision on less than perfect evidence.  Although we may never have perfect evidence, prosecutors, defense attorneys, and courts should all strive for that perfect evidence – they should strive to test every piece of available evidence that could possibly exonerate a man.  The cost will be great in monetary terms – DNA testing is not cheap, and the cost in terms of judicial economy is also great when one must consider the possibility of another trial.  However, this is not just any case – this is a death penalty case.  Not many are tried per year, and the consequences to the defendant, and to society as a whole (what if the wrong man has been sentenced to death, leaving another to run amock?) are well worth the added effort.