Finality v. Fairness

February 4, 2010

Henry “Hank” Skinner is scheduled for execution in Texas on February 24.  A two-part review of the case was recently published by the Texas Tribune.  He is asking for DNA testing of evidence that was found at the crime scene but never tested.  He claims these tests would establish that someone else committed the crime for which he is slated to be put to death.  The state, of course, is opposing the tests. 

But, why?  The cost of allowing the testing would be a few extra months for a man who has already been on death row for almost 15 years.  The benefit would be guaranteeing that the state does not execute someone who is actually innocent.   Don’t the benefits outweigh the costs in this case?  Is it even close?

Sadly, this is the classic “Finality v. Fairness” battle that death penalty cases so often come down to.  And the importance of “finality” has been inflated out of all proportion.  While “finality” is necessary to ensure that justice is done, the state is also charged with ensuring “fairness” (and accuracy) in its pursuit of that justice.

(It should be noted that long prison sentences usually provide far more real “finality” than death sentences, which are frequently overturned, sometimes re-instated, and mostly never carried out.)

Yet too often in death penalty cases the state (and the courts) seem to care only about “finality”.  Appeals with valid claims are rejected on technical grounds, and reasonable requests to test new evidence are aggressively resisted.  Even proof of actual innocence is no bar to the “finality” of an execution (though, depending on how the Troy Davis case turns out, that may change).  The result of all this, inevitably, is the execution, or near-execution, of the innocent and the undeserving.  The state of Texas should balance its enthusiasm for finality with a genuine commitment to fairness, and let all the evidence in Hank Skinner’s case be tested.