Gov. Bob Riley runs the risk of the state murdering an innocent man if he refuses to order DNA testing in capital cases where biological evidence exists
THE ISSUE: The governor runs the risk of the state murdering an innocent man if he refuses to order DNA testing in capital cases where biological evidence exists.
Two weeks ago, John Jerome White walked away from a life sentence in Georgia's Macon State Prison, cleared by DNA evidence of a rape he did not commit.
He became the seventh Georgia convict, and the 210th nationwide, to be set free after DNA testing. Incidentally, in all the Georgia cases, eyewitness accounts wrongly led to convictions.
Thursday, six men not from Georgia - all of them sentenced to death and then exonerated by DNA testing - asked Gov. Bob Riley to order testing of evidence in the case of Alabama Death Row inmate Thomas Arthur.
"Prosecutors, judges or governors rejected our initial pleas for DNA testing," the men said in a letter. "Each of us sat on Death Row, wondering whether the truth would come out before we were executed. And each of us was spared when the irrefutable science of DNA proved that we were innocent."
To date, Riley inexplicably has refused requests to order DNA testing for Arthur, who has always maintained his innocence. We say inexplicably, not because we're convinced Arthur is innocent, but because Riley has nothing to lose if Arthur's DNA is tested.
Arthur was scheduled to be executed Dec. 6 for the 1982 murder-for-hire killing of Troy Wicker Jr. of Muscle Shoals. But the U.S. Supreme Court stayed his execution until it rules in a Kentucky case whether lethal injection is constitutional.
The state can't set Arthur's execution date before the high court rules in the Kentucky case, which won't happen until spring. DNA testing would take about a month, according to Eric Ferrero, a spokesman for the Innocence Project, which has been involved in the DNA exonerations of more than 200 inmates across the country and orchestrated Thursday's letter to the governor. The pause gives the governor plenty of time to order DNA testing.
Semen and other biological evidence were found at the scene of Wicker's murder. Were Arthur being tried today, that evidence would be tested. But the scientific technology wasn't available then.
If modern DNA testing points to Arthur, Riley and other death penalty supporters can send Arthur to his death with their consciences clear. If DNA found at the death scene belongs to someone else, it may not necessarily mean Arthur didn't kill Wicker, but surely it would call his guilt into serious doubt. Surely, too, it would put a halt to the state's effort to kill him.
Why Riley would ignore that potential outcome is impossible to fathom. This editorial page has made its position against capital punishment clear. But even death penalty supporters should demand the state do all it can to get it right.
If DNA testing can ensure an inmate's guilt - or call it into question - it is imperative for Riley to order it. Not just for Arthur, but for every Death Row inmate for whom the new technology can shed light on their guilt or innocence.
For Riley to refuse to do so, he runs a very real risk of the state murdering an innocent man.