Even in death row cases, criminal defendants have no right to test potentially exonerating DNA evidence. In a move to prevent wrongful convictions in the state with the highest number of both executions and DNA exonerations, a Texas legislator is proposing a measure to require prosecutors to test available DNA evidence before seeking the death penalty. The bill’s chances of success were significantly bolstered with the unlikely support of one of the state’s most prominent and conservative legal figures: Attorney General Greg Abbott. The Dallas Observer’s Eric Nicholson reports on the move, in an aptly titled post, “Greg Abbott Backs DNA-Testing Bill, Continues Unprecedented Streak of Reasonableness”:
“There’s no reason to test these items more than a decade after the crime was committed,” Abbott said Tuesday at a news conference alongside the bill’s author, Rodney Ellis, a Houston Democrat. “We shouldn’t live with suspense. The family of the victim shouldn’t have to through this time after time after time in order to get certainty.”
Abbott is careful to frame his support for Ellis’ bill mainly as an effort to help victims’ families, but it comes, of course, in the wake of an embarrassingly high number of overturned convictions. According to the National Registry of Exonerations, 53 prisoners have been freed by DNA evidence, two of whom were serving on death row.
Nicholson points out that Abbott may also support the bill as a means of strengthening support for the death penalty, which Ellis also supports. There are ever-growing reasons to believe that the death penalty is not a good idea in any case. But Texas, home to one-third of the entire country’s executions, should at the very least test defendants’ DNA before seeking to take their lives. And they should do more. Earlier this month, the chief justice of the state’s supreme court once again called for a commission to investigate all wrongful convictions, many with defendants who could have benefited from DNA testing whether or not they faced the death penalty, and many more in which DNA evidence was never available to begin with.