More On Execution Of The Innocent
posted by Dan Filler
Although Justice Scalia recently argued that there were no documented cases of innocents being executed, Theodore Shaw of the Legal Defense Fund offered a pretty convincing counter-argument on the point in Sunday’s Washington Post. Shaw makes the case that there is good reason to believe that at least four innocent people have been executed since 1989 but his evidence does not include any DNA test results. I wonder if Scalia would dismiss these innocence claims as baseless, suggesting that nothing has been produced that would cause him to second-guess the jury’s factfinding. If so, what would it take to convince him?
I suspect that this discussion points to the corrosive effect that DNA exonerations have had on the broader debate about erroneous convictions. None of the cases Shaw cites offered the lock-down certainty of scientific testing. But relatively few investigations or convictions turn on DNA evidence. If we conclude that the only true exonerations are those backed by DNA testing (or similar scientific proof), we will be turning our back on many equally problematic convictions. In effect, we will treating the judgment of the jury – grounded in a factfinding and presentation process potentially tainted by all sorts of problems, starting with bad lawyering – as the moral equivalent of DNA testing: virtually irrefutable. And this may be exactly Scalia’s move in his Kansas v. Marsh dissent. If innocence cannot be proven through DNA, it can’t be proven at all. That is, in the absence of DNA counter-evidence, juries are always correct.
I think Justice Thomas took the more intellectually honest position. People and criminal justice systems are imperfect. Some juries will convict innocent people. Some states will execute innocent people. And the Constitution says there’s nothing the Supreme Court can do about it.