Monday, January 30, 2006

With great power comes great responsibility

Supreme Court to weigh DNA in capital case

One of the issues facing the Supreme Court this year is the question of whether or not death row inmates have the right to a new trial based on DNA evidence which was not available at the time of their conviction.
Since 1989, DNA technology has been used to exonerate 172 convicted felons in 31 states, including 14 people who had initially been sentenced to death.
[Paul] House, 44, has been on Tennessee's death row for 20 years, convicted of murdering Carolyn Muncey, a young mother who lived near him in rural Luttrell, about 25 miles north of Knoxville, in 1985. No one saw the crime happen, and House maintains he did not do it.
The prosecution found semen on the victim, and experts suggested at the time that it came from House, but new DNA evidence showed it was from Muncey's husband.
"I am convinced we are faced with a real-life murder mystery, an authentic 'who-done-it' where the wrong man may be executed," Judge Ronald Lee Gilman wrote.
Defense attorneys are often criticized for going out of their way (in rare cases bending or even breaking the rules) to get their clients out of trouble. Although defendants are presumed innocent until proven guilty in a court of law, the consensus is that most defendants wouldn't be on trial if they weren't guilty. This belief implies an underlying trust in the competence and virtue of the police and prosecuting attorney.

Unfortunately prosecutors, like defense attorneys, are only human and thus capable of making mistakes. Both have a personal interest in winning their cases, and a small percentage of each may, at one time or another, be tempted to bend or even break the rules to make this happen. I'm not saying the system can be perfected, but perfection should be the goal. If we feel outrage each time an accused celebrity buys his innocence with a high-profile defense attorney, then we should feel equal or even greater outrage each time a wrongly-condemned man is ultimately proven innocent.

Better ten guilty men go free than one innocent be punished.
- Thomas Jefferson

Previous posts on capital punishment:
Voting their conscience
Values a la carte


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