Archive for Thursday, April 5, 2001

Justice should be about truth

April 5, 2001


Maybe it's just me.

Other people seem able to process stuff like this without feeling as if their brains are about to combust spontaneously. Maybe they know something I don't. So help me with this, won't you?

It seems the governor of Virginia recently asked state lawmakers to impose a three-year limit on the time allowed death-row inmates to introduce DNA evidence that exonerates them.

Now me, I always thought the justice system was a system designed to produce, well ... justice. Meaning the punishment of the guilty but, just as importantly if not more so, the exoneration of the innocent. I figured that when the state presented a case, deprived a man of his freedom and scheduled him for execution, it ought to be driven primarily by a search for truth.

I'm confused. The governor's request actually represents a loosening of the previous rule, which allowed just 21 days. But why was there a 21-day limit? Why a three-year limit? Why impose any limit at all?

If DNA is able, as we've often been told, to incriminate or exonerate to a statistical certainty, isn't this a tool a truth-seeker should embrace whenever it becomes available? If a man is scheduled to die for a crime he didn't commit and someone unearths DNA evidence that proves his innocence, is it really OK to kill him because said evidence wasn't found in time? Does that sound like justice to you?

I must be missing something. I mean, I'm no fan of capital punishment, but I like to think that even if I were, the idea of time limits on the introduction of exculpatory evidence would trouble me. I'd want the system made airtight, want procedures in place to ensure no chance of human error or human malfeasance leading to a tragic wrong. That's the only way I'd be able to sleep at night.

Of course, no such procedure exists, nor is it likely to. That's something proponents of the death penalty are forced to ignore. They are required to act as if, in this area of human endeavor unlike all the others, mistakes are impossible. And they must close their eyes to that which contradicts.

I'm reminded of what Jack Nicholson said in "A Few Good Men." "You can't handle the truth!"

The fact is, there are truths too dangerous to know, truths that undermine, that strike too directly at the heart of beliefs in which too much is invested. Consider that nine years ago, the same state, Virginia, executed a man named Roger Keith Coleman for a 1981 rape and murder. Coleman went to his death proclaiming his innocence.

Now, four newspapers and a charity group want to perform sophisticated DNA tests to definitively determine the truth. The newspapers and the charity have agreed to pay for the tests, so there would be no taxpayer money at stake here.

There is no life at stake, either: Coleman is long dead. The only thing at stake is the truth. Either Virginia will be vindicated, or it will be vilified. If the state has confidence in its prosecution and execution of Coleman, it should have nothing to fear. Instead, Virginia is in court fighting doggedly to keep the test from going forward even knowing that if Coleman were indeed innocent, it means somebody out there got away with murder.

Can anyone be surprised? When it comes to the death penalty, the illusion of infallibility must be preserved, no matter the cost. Even the death of innocents. Even the death of conscience.

So the governor pushes for a three-year limit, and I'm figuring it simply has to be me who doesn't understand. I need him to explain a couple of things:

What happens to the innocent man whose DNA evidence comes to light after three years and a day? And how will the governor sleep at night afterward?

Granted, we already know the answer to the first. As to the second, I have no idea.

Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for the Miami Herald.

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