Washington Post


Frank Lee Smith was sent to death row 15 years ago for the rape, beating and murder of an 8-year-old girl named Shandra Whitehead. He was convicted on the testimony of 3 witnesses. The strongest of these witnesses later recanted and said she was pressured by police to finger Mr. Smith. This week DNA testing cleared him. But the exonerated man will not join the growing list of wrongly condemned people belatedly released from death row. He died of cancer 11 months ago, after 14 years in prison.

The case reveals again the grave flaws in our death penalty system. Before the state knowingly kills someone, it ought to want to be certain of guilt—and proponents of the death penalty, President-elect Bush among them, too often display a sunny confidence in the justice system’s adequacy to attain that certainty. Yet as the growing body of DNA exonerations illustrates, true certainty is elusive.

The newfound enthusiasm among some capital punishment supporters for DNA testing is welcome, but it is also an inadequate response to the systemic failures that lead to wrongful convictions. DNA testing provides a powerful investigative and evidentiary tool for police and prosecutors, and it retroactively vindicates some wrongly convicted individuals. But not all crimes leave testable materials, nor are samples always adequately maintained. DNA testing can never, in other words, serve as a surefire stopgap. It offers, rather, a window on the system’s performance, and the view through that window has not been pretty.

Through a combination of shoddy trial counsel, improprieties by police and prosecutors, and inevitable human error, people are erroneously sent to death row. At the point of execution, the justice system makes a decision to bury any residual doubts and whatever remaining questions a particular conviction might present. But the system will never be as infallible as capital punishment is irreversible. With its failures now so evident, those who would be executioners ought to display more humility.