Since DNA evidence became available and admissible in court, 17 people who had been convicted of murder and sentenced to death by execution were later exonerated by DNA. Those innocent people were then freed, often with the support of the very same prosecutors who had initially proved they were guilty “beyond the shadow of a doubt.”
Think about that. Without the tool of DNA evidence, those 17 innocent people would almost certainly have been executed for crimes that they did not commit. In effect, they would have become innocent victims of a society and a legal system that abhor the taking of innocent life. (Since 1973, the Death Penalty Information Center says, more than a hundred people condemned to Death Row have had their sentences overturned because of doubts about their guilt.)
Now think about the hundreds of people on Death Row today for whom no DNA evidence exists. It did not help prove their guilt, and it cannot prove their innocence. It is silent on their case. I have no doubt that most of those on Death Row are guilty of the heinous crimes that they’ve been convicted of committing. However, no honest accounting can claim that they are ALL guilty. Not when, in 17 documented cases in which DNA evidence did exist, it was used to free innocent people who had been wrongly convicted and faced execution.
Every single one of those 17 cases is a caution sign telling us that we do not know all that we think we know, that doubt casts a bigger shadow than we previously understood. In fact, given those numbers, the odds dictate that one or two or even a dozen people convicted of murder without DNA evidence and now on Death Row are innocent.
But which ones are they? Mathematics tells us that the innocent exist; it does not identify who they are.
I can’t say that I think Troy Davis, scheduled to be executed this week for murdering Savannah Police Officer Mark Allen MacPhail, is innocent. My best guess is that he isn’t. My best guess, having reviewed as much of the evidence as I can, is that Davis probably did kill MacPhail. But there is no DNA evidence in the case, no fingerprint evidence, to substantiate that fact. The case is based almost entirely on testimony from eyewitnesses that in some instances has altered over the passage of time.
Davis should not be freed. The minimal doubt that may exist about his guilt does not rise to the level needed to justify overturning his conviction. However, the sense of closure and justice that would be provided to some by his execution does not outweigh the possibility that we would be compounding one tragic killing by committing another.
Seventeen, in this context, is a very big number.
– Jay Bookman