DNA Evidence, Capital Punishment, & the Criminal Justice System
Capital Punishment is an issue of great contention. There are many people who strongly favor the use of capital punishment; there are also a great number of people that are adamantly against the use of capital punishment. DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) evidence has become a crucial factor in the criminal justice system and the issue of capital punishment. Since the advent and use of DNA evidence as part of criminal proceedings, there have been many prisoners and alleged criminals who have been exonerated because of DNA evidence specifically. The use of DNA evidence has illuminated overarching problems in several areas of the criminal justice system, including law enforcement and the penal system. DNA is used to overturn wrongful criminal charges and ultimately to right an injustice to both the victim of the crime and to the person wrongfully accused. It would bring the victim no resolution to know that the person in prison for a crime committed against him or her is not the person who perpetrated the crime truly. This paper will examine the affects of the use of DNA evidence has on the criminal, and discuss how the exoneration of many alleged criminals has revealed systemic flaws in the criminal justice system.
DNA evidence is most effective when it has been collected and documented in a fashion that strictly adheres to professional standards. DNA evidence does not guarantee exoneration, but it can play a pivotal role in prosecution: "As every serious student of wrongful convictions knows, however, DNA technology -- regardless of how sophisticated it becomes -- is of no help when there is no DNA evidence available at the scene of the crime." (Bedau et al., "Convicting the Innocent…," Page 601) There are strengths to DNA evidence and DNA technology and there are weaknesses, too. For DNA evidence to serve the greatest good, we must do our best to remove bias: "When assessing the role of DNA testing in vindicating the innocent, it is important to give a balanced account." (Bedau et al., "Convicting the Innocent…," Page 600)
The increasing use of capital punishment may be due in part to more than the necessity to serve justice to victims. The criminal justice system is quite far from perfect, though we cannot deny that is functional. Each piece of the criminal justice is crucial, from law enforcement, to prosecutors, to the legislators. We should be aware of the use of certain punishments and asks ourselves why they are used. Is the reason to serve justice? Is it the appropriate penalty for the crime? The use of certain punishments may additionally function as part of a political agenda:
"Proposals like Governor Romney's bill provide the false impression that an infallible system of capital punishment is tenable. Romney and others envision an airtight death penalty that consistently and accurately sorts the guilty from the innocent. In fact, a workable 'no doubt' or "foolproof' system is an illusion. The suggested reforms are impossibly expensive and impose a hopeless burden on prosecutors. Furthermore, the Ray Krone debacle is just one example of the fact that scientific evidence, however conclusive, is not always foolproof. Most importantly, even where scientific technology such as DNA is infallible, the Leskie case and others demonstrate that the humans who utilize it are not. Simply no amount of restructuring can wrench capital punishment from its inexorable grasp on the innocent. Reform is not enough; the problems inherent in capital punishment are not resolvable." (Proctor, "Reevaluating Capital Punishment…," Page 240)
No system is perfect, and neither is any human being who works within it. This should be self evident, but the lack of self-awareness and the ability to admit and treat fault hinders the efficacy of the criminal justice system. The author's propose that the problems with capital punishment can never be resolved. They indirectly suggest to no longer use capital punishment as an option in capital offenses. They believe there is no answer in sight; the system is too damaged to repair this one facet. They propose to remove capital punishment from the penal system or to change the entire system from the ground up. The former is a great deal more likely than the latter. In the example above, a proposal by Governor Romney projects an image that the criminal justice system is without flaws, as well as the use of capital punishment. In his efforts to push his political agenda or the political agenda of the party he represents, he wants other to ignore how much DNA influences criminal cases and how that influence reveals problems in the criminal justice system.
DNA often shows where there has been intentional or unintentional human error during various stages of the criminal proceedings.
"Clearly, innocent human error is not the only risk weighing on the credibility of DNA or other physical evidence. Ban's fabrication exemplifies the more sinister possibility that analysts have the capabilities to tamper with and influence DNA results. To be sure, police detectives share similar opportunities to plant or construe evidence in criminal investigations. However, the possibility of misconduct by crime scene investigators is arguably more problematic because DNA evidence has the reputation of being incredibly reliable. Capital cases often hinge on the presence of DNA matches or other forensics, especially under Romney's proposed reform, and jurors cannot dispute DNA matches in the same way they might mistrust a police witness." (Proctor, "Reevaluating Capital Punishment…," Page 247)
Every aspect of the criminal justice system must be held accountable to stringent standards of handling evidence. It is true that sometimes evidence tampering is intentional. There are also numerous cases where DNA evidence was tampered or otherwise compromised due to improper handling of evidence. Human error will occur. Perhaps there needs to be additional safeguards in place to limit human errors as much as possible. Whether it is human error or a system error, we must examine the human aspect as well as the systemic aspect to criminal justice. If we are truly concerned with justice and a system that provides it, then we must turn a critical lens to the system itself:
"The criminal justice system has developed largely through faith in the adversarial process, faith in the rules of evidence, faith in the standard of proof beyond a reasonable doubt, and faith in the common sense of police, lawyers, judges, and politicians to create an effective truthfinding process. Recent empirical evidence, however, especially DNA evidence, has opened a window through which we can examine this faith in the system. That window both reveals the errors in the system and suggests means to remedy them." (Findley, "Learning from Our Mistakes…," Page 333)
The author implies that we are hypocrites to a degree. Our actions to do align with our words in regards to capital punishment and the criminal justice system. We would like to pretend that the criminal justice system is fair to a degree and where it lacks in fairness, we can say that at least it works. The authors suggest that this is untrue. It is clear that the criminal justice has gone for a long time without intensive internal review of policies and procedures.
The times change and with the times, the crimes changes as well. As the crimes change, the methods by which we proceed legally must change as well. The laws and the systems by which we enforce them should accurately reflect the world and culture in which we live. How can a system work for a society or culture that no longer exists? Or at least, no longer exists in the same form? We propose lofty goals for the criminal justice system. Are those goals only for show? Does the system reflect a process that achieves these goals? If we continue to ignore how DNA affects the criminal justice system at large, can we continue to call such a system criminal justice? Findley argues:
"With the attention focused on the problem by the DNA exonerations, other types of wrongful conviction take on new significance and can also serve as part of the impetus for self-examination. Every state has miscarriages of justice even apart from the DNA cases. Every state has wrongful convictions established by reversal and subsequent acquittal or dismissal, or by pardon. Finding and compiling such cases, especially in the shadow of the more than one hundred DNA exonerations nationwide, can add powerfully to the argument for self-study." (Findley, "Learning from Our Mistakes…," Page 354)
For those who are interested in a functional and righteous criminal justice system, self-examination and self-awareness is required to identify and target flaws in the system.
Those who study the criminal justice system as well as those who participate in the criminal justice system, agree about the significance of DNA evidence and the exoneration of the wrongfully accused:
"Initial evaluation of the first DNA exoneration cases has identified recurring factors that have contributed to the wrongful convictions. The first study of the DNA…