We’ve learned a lot about the death penalty in the last 30 years. What are we going to do about it?
Just a fraction of the murders in the United States result in a death sentence. But are those few individuals truly the "worst of the worst" – or simply those with the worst lawyers, the wrong geographic location, or the wrong skin color?
Justice demands the utmost integrity of our country’s only irreversible punishment. Yet the mounting evidence of waste, inaccuracy, and bias has shattered public confidence in the criminal justice system. Across the country, executions and death sentences are declining. Multiple states have repealed the death penalty in recent years. Overall support for the death penalty is dwindling to a trickle.
Innocent lives in the balance
Roy Krone was sentenced to die for the murder of a young woman in Arizona in 1992. His conviction was based on the testimony of a forensic dentist who claimed he was 100% certain that Krone’s teeth matched bite-marks found on the victim's body. The prosecution had no other physical evidence linking Krone to the murder. Three years later, Krone received a new trial and, although DNA evidence was introduced proving that blood found on the victim didn't belong to Krone, he was again convicted on the basis of the bite-mark testimony.
Finally, in 2002 new DNA testing of the blood found on the victim not only excluded Krone, but pointed to another man – Kenneth Phillips, who had previously been convicted of child molestation, and was the person actually responsible for the crime. Krone was finally exonerated. He spent over 10 years behind bars.
Wrongful convictions like Krone’s mean victims’ family members suffer while the people actually responsible for the crimes are never made accountable and tax dollars are wasted. At least 144 men and women have walked off our nation’s death rows after evidence revealed that they were sentenced to die for crimes they did not commit.1 That’s more than one innocent person exonerated for every ten who’ve been executed.
These exonerations represent only the wrongful convictions that we know about. How many others were not so lucky?
The DNA era has given us a window into all of the things that can go wrong in a criminal case, including incompetent lawyers, mistaken witnesses, hidden evidence, and more. DNA by itself, however, cannot solve these problems – it can only tell us how bad they are. DNA evidence exists in only about 5-10% of criminal cases – far fewer than one would think from watching TV crime shows like CSI.
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