A few days ago, the New York Times ran a story about the case of Sedley Alley, who convicted and sentenced to death for a 1985 rape and murder in Tennessee. Alley was executed in 2006 and now his daughter, April, has petitioned the court to test DNA evidence from the crime scene.
(Photo Credit: Sebastian Pichler, retrieved from Unsplash.com)
I know not whether Sedley Alley was innocent; right now, nobody does. But we do know a few things. First, we know that Alley’s conviction was questionable, based on limited physical evidence and a shaky confession that Alley says was coerced. Second, we know he was executed. And third, we know that there is DNA evidence that has never been tested, but which might give us a clearer understanding of Alley’s guilt or innocence. So, a logical question follows:
Why not test the DNA?
The benefits of testing are clear. We learn, with a greater degree of certainty, whether or not an innocent man has been executed. If the test results are inculpatory – suggesting that Alley was, in fact, guilty – then we can rest our heads with a slightly greater sense of ease, knowing that the worst-case scenario was avoided, and capital punishment supporters have a small cap in their feather in their fight to delay the inarguable decline of the death penalty in the 21st century.
If, on the other hand, the DNA test results are exculpatory – suggesting that Alley was innocent and thus wrongfully convicted – we will have documented the execution of an innocent person, marking the first time a wrongful execution was proven through DNA evidence. Such a scenario would clearly highlight the dangers involved in administering the ultimate form of punishment and, hopefully, help accelerate necessary reforms to our criminal legal system.
So, I again ask: Why not test the DNA?
The answer to this question is likely complicated, but I suspect it has something to do with institutional protectionism. Capital punishment is, undoubtedly, an American institution, having been practiced for centuries. The risk of executing an innocent person has always existed, but it was just that – a risk; a mere possibility, one that must be balanced with the potential benefits of having a death penalty. I say “potential” benefits because they are not supported by data or sound research. No statistically sound studies have found the death penalty to deter violent crime; capital punishment does not save money, but costs taxpayers significantly more than long-term imprisonment; the death penalty is implemented in a racially and socioeconomically biased fashion; and the risk of executing the innocent is real, to the extent that about 1-in-25 people sentenced to death may be innocent.
For these reasons (and more), the death penalty is in decline in the U. S. Seemingly, the last thing proponents have to hang their support on is retribution – the notion that those who commit murder simply deserve the death penalty; an “eye for an eye,” and all that. Indeed, when asked why they support capital punishment, here is what proponents gave as their answers in an open-ended question in a 2014 Gallup poll:
(Source: Gallup Historical Trends – Death Penalty)
Several of the responses directly or implicitly suggest that people support the death penalty for retributive reasons – that people simply deserve it. This view, however, must rely on some level of confidence in our criminal legal system. After all, one must be confident that those who are sentenced to death, and ultimately executed, are the ones who truly deserve. As James Q. Wilson wrote, ““Wicked people exist. Nothing avails except to set them apart from innocent people.” Thus, those sentenced to death and executed must be guilty.
However, if it were demonstrated, especially through DNA testing, that innocents were executed, it would scientifically show that we are not always capable of separating the “wicked” from the innocent. In light of such knowledge, it is plausible that people’s trust and belief in our system will be reduced; that confidence that death penalty support requires would further erode. Perhaps the fear of such a revelation is enough to keep us from seeking the truth, wherever that quest may lead.
This is a messy issue. The death penalty is a highly moralized and emotional thing for people, and it can be hard to be fully rational. But, to conclude, I’d say this:
To death penalty supporters – put your confidence to the test. If you have any faith in our criminal legal process, then support the DNA testing that will help us understand whether we adequately separated the “wicked” from the innocent in this one case.
To death penalty skeptics, critics, and abolitionists – this could be monumental. A DNA-based finding of wrongful execution would be hard to ignore, even for the most ardent death penalty proponents, and may be what is needed get over the hump in improving and/or abolishing the death penalty.
And, to both camps: Be prepared to live with the results, whatever they may reveal. In the end, truth should be what we’re after, regardless of its nature.