How 'DNA' testing works


Race: The role of race and the death penalty is often misunderstood. On one level there's the charge of institutional racism: 98 percent of prosecutors are white, and, according to the NAAGP, Legal Defense Fund they are much more likely to ask for the death penalty for a black-on-white crime than when blacks are the victims. Blacks convicted of major violent offenses are more likely than white convicts to end up on death row. But once they get there, blacks are less likely than white death-row inmates to he executed because authorities are on the defensive about seeming to target African-Americans. The result is both discrimination and reverse discrimination - with deadly consequences.

The risk of errors: The more people on death row, the greater chance of mistakes. There are common elements to cases where terrible errors have been made: when police and prosecutors are pressured by the community to "solve" a notorious murder; when there's no DNA evidence or reliable eyewitnesses; wnen the crime is especially heinous and draws large amounts of pretrial publicity; when defense attorneys have limited resources, if authorities were particularly vigilant when these issues were at play, they might identify problematic cases earlier.

Deterrence: Often the first argument of death-penalty supporters. But studies of the subject are all over the lot, with no evidence ever established of a deterrent effect. When parole was more common, die argument earned more logic. But nowadays first-degree murderers can look forward to life without parole if caught, which should in theory deter diem as much as die deadi penalty. It's hard to imagine a criminals thinking: "Well, since might get the death penalty for this crime, 1 won't do it. But if it was only life in prison, I'd go ahead."

inadequate counsel: Beyond the incompetent lawyers who populate any court-appointed system, Congress and the Clinton administration have put the nation's 3,600 death-row inmates in an agonizing Catch-22. According to the American Bar Association Death Penalty Representation Project, in a state like California, about one third of death-row inmates must wait for years to be assigned lawyers to handle their state direct appeals. And at the postconviction level in some suites, inmates don't have access to lawyers at all. The catch isdiatdie 1996 And -Terrorism and Effective Deatii Penalty Act has a statute of limitations requiring diat inmates file federal habeas corpus petitions (requests for federal court review) within one year after die end of their direct state appeal. In other words, because they have no lawyer after their direct appeals, inmates often helplessly watch die clock run out on their chance for federal review. This cuts down on frivolous appealsbut also on ones that could reveal gross injustice.

Fact-finding: Most states aren't as lucky as Illinois. They don't have reporters and investigators digging into die details of old cases. As die deadi penalty becomes routine and less newsworthy, the odds against real investigation grow even worse. 1 even when fresh evidence does surface, most states place high barriers against its use after a trial. This has been standard in the legal system for generations, but it makes little sense when an inmate's life is at stake.

Standards of guilt: In most jurisdictions, die judge instructs the jury to look for "guilt beyond a reasonable doubt." But is that the right standard for capital cases? Maybe a second staridard like "residual doubt" would help, whereby if any juror harbors any doubt whatsoever, the conviction would stand but the death penalty would be ruled out. The same double threshold . might apply to cases involving single eyewitnesses and key testimony by jailhouse snitches with in-----

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