DNA and Death Row

by Diane Dimond on November 25, 2013

Spending Justice System Money More Wisely

In this time of economic strain anyone who doesn’t look at ways to cut their 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?

300+ Exonerated and Counting

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 the Innocence Project got exonerated 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, CODIS.

DNA Tests Reap Dividends

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?

Spend Now for DNA Tests or Later on Compensation

About half the states have no actual statute for compensation on the books but that doesn’t mean they don’t payout 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. 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 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 choir boys. 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.

DNA Swab Test Are Quick & Easy

There has been a recent push to take DNA from all newly arrested citizens and those results automatically wind up in the national data base. 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.

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{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

Diane Dimond November 25, 2013 at 10:17 am

ABQ Journal Reader DSchuhma writes:

“Why not do DNA testing on all persons on trial for serious crimes against persons? This would maybe even PREVENT a conviction of an innocent person.
I have often wondered why in this age of modern forensics we couldn’t do this. I know if I were wrongly accused of rape or assault or a host of other crimes where DNA testing could make the difference I would certainly be in favor of this. This could save a lot of time, money, erroneous convictions, perhaps catch the REAL perpetrator.
As you say how expensive is the test? States and feds WASTE a lot more money than this. “

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Diane Dimond November 25, 2013 at 10:19 am

Creators Syndicate Website Reader Partsmom writes:

“I know there are constitutional questions about DNA testing, but the point of the Fifth Amendment is to outlaw coerced confessions. Is DNA testing to the point of being foolproof? If done correctly, with a clean chain of custody, it isn’t something that can be easily faked. However, there are still ways that any evidence can be fudged. The effort should be to make it as foolproof and unfudgeable as possible.”

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Diane Dimond November 25, 2013 at 10:20 am

Reader Thomas Cavaliere writes:

“DIANE,
I read you’re article about DNA testing for ALL Prisoners, & Support that Program 100%.
It seems too many Prosecutor’s Remove, Hide or Don’t present Important evidence , just so they could get a ”Conviction”. And Many Inmates have finally found they’re Freedom thru DNA Testing…A Great article…THANK YOU.
Now I have just 1 problem….You stated in you’re article…(Quote)” While there are some wrongfully convicted Inmates in Prison, Most of the people who populate Death Row didn’t get there by being Choir Boys”. (UN-Quote)….I find this to be a “”Sexist” Statement…Maybe it should have read…Choir Boys AND Girls…(Yes, There are Women on Death row).—I mean, in Today’s Media , Men always seem to be the BAD One’s, but, as we all know…Woman could be that way too. (just ask Jodie Arias)…..THANK YOU and keep up the Good Work….THOMAS.”

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Diane Dimond November 25, 2013 at 10:50 am

Facebook Reader Dan Austin writes:

” I’ve been saying that for Years….as we are well aware, most Criminals are recidivists, in & out of the system & multiple crimes. Someday, it may happen but for now the ACLU & other Civil Rights Activists are winning this Debate.”

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Diane Dimond November 25, 2013 at 10:51 am

Facebook Friend Jackie Morin writes:

” I absolutely agree it should be done. It should be done as soon as someone is convicted of a violent crime. The benefits would far outweigh the possible ‘rights’ infringement.”

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Diane Dimond November 25, 2013 at 10:52 am

Facebook Reader Carmen Matthews writes:

“Hi, Diane. While I agree that it would be great if DNA tests would be ordered for all who are on death row, (letting the innocent go free; saving taxpayer costs) the 3 questions that come to mind are: Would this lead to more court time, where both sides would challenge the validity of the tests? What are the statistics on bad DNA? And, if the prosecution finds DNA that supports their claims against the defense, what are all the compelling arguments that the defense can make against that DNA, meaning, how reliable is that DNA? “

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Diane Dimond November 25, 2013 at 10:53 am

Facebook Friend Madeline Michele Hovey writes:

” Also how many are not convicted or charged ..it goes both ways people are free who should be in prison or on death row…”

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Diane Dimond November 25, 2013 at 10:55 am

Facebook Friend Donald Andrew Ross writes:

” Wouldn’t want to violate their ‘rights’, these fine upstanding citizens….”

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Diane Dimond November 25, 2013 at 11:29 am

Facebook Friend Stacy Brown writes:

“Stacy Brown The money spent on cases is already exorbitant, so it stands to reason that, in the interest of getting it right especially for a condemned convict, lawmakers and law enforcement arms would want DNA testing.
I’d imagine that there are some prosecutors who simply have the attitude that, “I’m right and I won, nothing else matters.” No one is perfect and, when it comes to deciding whether a human lives or dies, we certainly should make sure to be perfect!”

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Diane Dimond November 25, 2013 at 11:40 am

Linked In Connection Robert Olson writes:

“I am quite sure you would close many cold cases since most criminals are fairly habitual. However, I am also sure that you might prove a few wrongful convictions, as well.”

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Diane Dimond November 26, 2013 at 2:17 pm

Linked In pal William Deane writes:

“George Bush #43 when governor of Texas claimed he didn’t need any DNA evidence while setting the national record of 152 deaths in the electric chair. George claimed he never made a mistake, batting 1,000, a perfect record. But Texas Governor Perry has easily beaten out that record of the former president by executing 3 for juvenile crime and at least 10 with signs of mental instability. This June 28, the present governor celebrated Texas death number 500, a record! since the Supreme Court lifted the execution ban in 1976. No other governor comes close to Perry’s 234 executions. The Right-to-Life Republican Party has a conflict when it comes to saving lives on death row. So it will be a long time when Texas looks at DNA evidence. After all it might show Bush and/or Perry made a mistake sending an innocent to death, and they can’t have that.”

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Diane Dimond November 26, 2013 at 2:27 pm

Thanks for the comment, Bill.
BTW, while Texas tops all the states – Virginia, Georgia, Florida, Oklahoma and Missouri also have conducted double or triple digit executions since 1976. ~ DD

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