Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Death Row Inmates deserve DNA Testing

Tuscaloosa News- Tuscaloosa, AL

Putting science and conscience on the shelf, Alabama is getting back into the execution business with a vengeance.

Vengeance can be the only explanation for the state's eagerness to resume executions as soon as possible after last week's U.S. Supreme Court ruling that lethal injections do not constitute cruel and unusual punishment. We have had almost two centuries of legal executions in Alabama. In all of that time, no one has shown that the death penalty is a deterrent to crime.

That leaves only retribution - an eye for an eye - as a reason for state-sanctioned execution. That, and the politicians' perception that most voters support capital punishment.

Polls tend to bear out that perception. Yet many who support the death penalty in principle would have second thoughts about applying it to a person whose guilt has not been proven conclusively.

That's the case with Tommy Arthur, now 65, who was convicted of the 1982 murder-for-hire killing of Troy Wyker Jr. of Muscle Shoals.

Arthur was scheduled to die last September. Just hours before the execution, however, Gov. Bob Riley issued a stay so the state could add a step to its lethal injection procedure.

In early December, the U.S. Supreme Court blocked Arthur's execution again, just a day before it was scheduled, to allow it to hear arguments in a Kentucky case challenging lethal injection.

Arthur's attorneys also appealed to the high court, arguing that lethal injection is cruel and unusual.

In the interim, Riley said he was considering whether to order DNA testing for Arthur.

Arthur has consistently maintained that DNA tests would exonerate him. The technology was not available when he was convicted. But Alabama is one of only eight states that do not have mandatory DNA testing in capital cases.

The Innocence Project, which champions the use of DNA tests nationwide, said it has no position on Arthur's guilt or innocence but said the tests could at least shed light on a dodgy case. Witnesses, claiming they were bribed or pressured, have changed their stories about Arthur's involvement and direct evidence was scant.

Riley, however, decided ultimately that he has no authority to order DNA testing. And when the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear Arthur's appeal on Monday, Attorney Gen. Troy King wasted little time in asking the state Supreme Court to set an execution date. All indications are that the state will go ahead and kill him.

We had hoped, naively perhaps, that Alabama's leaders would use the national hiatus on the death penalty as a time to launch a re-examination of the state's flawed capital punishment procedure. That won't happen.

For now, at least, vengeance and political expedience have trumped science and conscience.

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