DNA on Death Row


In this time of economic strain, anyone who doesn’t look at ways to cut his or her personal or business budget is just not being responsible. Same goes for the justice system.

For nearly two decades, lawyers working with death row inmates have spent countless hours, court time and multiple tens of millions of dollars fighting for access to DNA testing. These attorneys work right up until execution time to win court orders for DNA tests on crime scene evidence or DNA of the condemned prisoner him or herself.

I could never figure out why so much time and money was spent fighting a condemned person’s last chance to establish their innocence. Don’t we want to make sure we’re executing the right person? Now that DNA technology has become so advanced, isn’t that one extra step the necessary and honorable thing to do?

Since 1992, when the Innocence Project was founded, designed to help prisoners who could be exonerated through DNA testing, more than 300 convicts have been set free, including 18 from death row.

Some might see the death row DNA fight as a stalling tactic by crafty lawyers for an obviously guilty person. That might certainly be true in some cases. But ask the 18 death row inmates exonerated by the Innocence Project if their final DNA fight was worth it.

Most states have statutes allowing post-conviction DNA testing access, but none are automatic and almost all of them come with strict restrictions or absolute deadlines for use. District Attorney’s offices routinely fight defense requests for DNA testing — as if to say each of their prosecutions were perfect and never needs review. What are they afraid of?

Well, here’s an idea that could reap double dividends. First, Congress needs to get past its partisan paralysis and pass a federal law mandating automatic DNA testing of inmates who have been sentenced to die. No questions asked, just test each of America’s 3,125 death row inmates who have never had their DNA collected, and register it with the national database CODIUS.

The argument, of course, will be that DNA tests are costly. Really? Compared to what? Research shows they average between $350 and $1,800, depending on the laboratory used. Compared to the accumulated big-ticket costs of lawyers, judges, prosecutors and court staff and it is easy to see that paying a bit up front could actually save taxpayer dollars in the long run. It could also save an innocent person’s life.

Most importantly, mandated DNA tests could more quickly identify innocent inmates which, in turn, could alert police to the fact that there is still a dangerous criminal on the loose. It’s estimated that the exonerated spend about 13 years in prison before they are released. That’s too many years to allow a guilty party to roam the streets preying on others.

Another budget point: The longer you keep a wrongfully convicted person in prison, the more the state is liable to pay out in compensation. Isn’t it smarter to spend a bit of money today (on DNA tests) and spare the state a potential big payout later?

About half the states have no actual statute for compensation on the books, but that doesn’t mean they don’t pay out huge sums. In California, for example, a state law awards up to $100 for each day a wrongfully convicted person spent in prison. (Multiply that by the average 13 years and it totals more than $475,000. Realize, many of the exonerated have languished in prison for 25 years or more. For a quarter century of wrongful imprisonment, a California inmate could receive more than $912,000.) Missouri is less generous, offering $50 for each day, but still a nice nest egg for a newly released prisoner. In Florida, an exonerated person can get $50,000 for each year they spent behind bars, with a maximum of $2 million.

Here’s that second dividend I mentioned: DNA testing could help solve cold cases and provide answers to families that have been waiting years for news on what happened to their loved one.

While there are some wrongfully convicted inmates in prison, most of the people who populate death row didn’t get there by being choirboys. A vast majority committed multiple crimes before winding up where they did — crimes that range from burglary and robbery to bank robbery and murder. By including their DNA in the CODIS network, law enforcement agencies around the country could tap into it to see if there’s a connection to their cold cases.

There has been a recent push to take DNA from all newly arrested citizens, and those results automatically wind up in the national database. But, there are prisoners who have been incarcerated for decades who never got the cheek-swab test for DNA.

Can you imagine the backlog of criminal cases that might be solved if each and every prisoner were included in the CODIS system? A study of 41 serial rapists, for example, showed that before they were imprisoned, they admitted they had collectively raped 837 times and attempted the crime against more than 400 others. If DNA was left behind at the crime scenes, those open cases could be closed and victims could be assured their attacker was behind bars.

Yes, it would take money to accomplish such an all-inclusive prisoner DNA system. But, I maintain there’s nothing more important than good, solid information, a guide to identifying the known criminal element. It would be money much more wisely spent than endless court fights because it would reap definitive evidence that goes toward the common good.

It’s way past time for justice system bean counters to think outside the box.

Rockland resident Diane Dimond is a syndicated columnist, author, regular guest on TV news programs, and correspondent for Newsweek/Daily Beast. Visit her at www.DianeDimond.net or reach her via email Diane@DianeDimond.net

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