The elusive search for the sufficiently innocent death-row victim.For years, death-penalty opponents and supporters have been on what now looks to be an ethical snipe hunt. Everyone was looking for a moment at which everything would change: a case in which a clearly innocent defendant was wrongly put to death.
In a 2005 Supreme Court case that actually had nothing to do with the execution of innocents, Justices David Souter and Antonin Scalia locked horns over the possibility that such a creature could even exist. Souter fretted that "the period starting in 1989 has seen repeated exonerations of convicts under death sentences, in numbers never imagined before the development of DNA tests." To which Scalia retorted: "[T]he dissent makes much of the new-found capacity of DNA testing to establish innocence. But in every case of an executed defendant of which I am aware, that technology has confirmed guilt." Scalia went on to blast "sanctimonious" death-penalty opponents, a 1987 study on innocent exonerations whose "obsolescence began at the moment of publication," and then concluded that there was not "a single case—not one—in which it is clear that a person was executed for a crime he did not commit."
This language suggested that if anyone ever found such a case, the Scalias of the world might rethink matters. As of today, the Innocence Project, a national organization dedicated to exonerating the wrongfully convicted through DNA testing, claims there have been 241 post-conviction DNA exonerations, of which 17 were former death-row inmates who now have been spared the death penalty. The gap between their data and Justice Scalia's widens every year. And for those who insist that not even one of those alleged innocents is indeed innocent, we now have a name: Cameron Todd Willingham, executed by the state of Texas in 2004 for allegedly setting a 1991 house fire that killed his three young daughters.