This Washington Post article dramatizes the controversy over posthumous DNA testing of executed convicts. The arguments for this are intuitive and compelling – the death penalty is one of the most controversial pieces of American social policy, and testing – even when it comes too late to save the life of a falsely accused individual – represents a scientific approach to study one its most contentious empirical questions: Does the death penalty claim innocent victims? As one forensic scientist argues:

Although Blake suspects Coleman is guilty based on his earlier work, he is also steadfast in his belief that the public has the right to know the truth. “I’m not anti-death penalty; I’m pro-democracy,” he said in an interview. “How can the state take the position that this is not worth inquiring into? Why not find out once and for all?”

The opposition, while it gets a good deal of space over the lengthy article, fails to offer much of a counter-argument. Mostly it runs like this:

John Eastman, a Chapman University law professor, said that post-conviction DNA testing is not always “about a particular guy being innocent, but an effort to open the door to build a case against the death penalty.”
Much like police who knock on someone’s door with a search warrant often do so trying to build a case against a suspect. But we don’t therefore render evidence inadmissible – we evaluate how persuasive it is.

In the case of Joseph Roger O’Dell III, executed in Virginia in 1997 for a rape and murder, a prosecuting attorney bluntly argued in court in 1998 that if posthumous DNA results exonerated O’Dell, “it would be shouted from the rooftops that . . . Virginia executed an innocent man.”

I certainly hope it would be. Because there would be fairly persuasive evidence to that effect.

…a number acknowledge that they remain opposed to what they see as baseless testing, in large part out of concern for the victims’ relatives, who have waited years — sometimes decades — for closure.

I find it hard to believe that victims of violent crime – let alone their communities – are better served by leaving unexplored evidence that might suggest that the one executed didn’t do it. For “closure” to trump truth in a life and death situation like this is unconscionable.

Legal experts say that the costs of testing, which run into thousands of dollars, contribute to the resistance.

The death penalty, incidentally, isn’t cheap – even when compared to life imprisonment.

Ultimately, no one articulates an argument against using the methods available to explore the full truth about the death penalty that’s markedly more persuasive than

Tom Scott, a Grundy lawyer who prosecuted Coleman, believes Warner should “let sleeping dogs lie.”

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