The Death Penalty: How Long Will It Survive?

Twenty years after DNA was first used to exonerate a man, capital-punishment opponents are optimistic.


(The Root) — On May 7, officials at the Mississippi State Penitentiary, better known as “ol’ Parchman,” planned to strap Willie Jerome Manning to a gurney and pump a lethal cocktail of drugs into his veins at precisely 7 p.m.

But just five hours before he was set to die, the state’s Supreme Court halted Manning’s execution. Attorneys for the U.S. Justice Department had found that the one piece of forensic evidence offered against Manning — by an FBI expert who testified with certainty that a hair found in a murder victim’s car belonged to Manning — was “invalid,” throwing the convicted man’s guilt into doubt.

With that new information and after a series of hearings, the Mississippi Supreme Court ordered DNA testing on the hair after years of refusing to do so. The results are still pending, but in the meantime, another man may have been saved by the use of DNA evidence.

Manning’s case has attracted national attention and the assistance of legal heavyweights Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld, co-founders of the New York-based nonprofit the Innocence Project. In some ways, what’s happened to Manning is emblematic of American justice and the state of its most severe and irrevocable penalty: capital punishment. And the reason, advocates of abolishing the death penalty say, is increasing cultural awareness of DNA science and expectations that it can be used to reach certain, not just likely, conclusions about guilt.

Fighting the Death Penalty From the States

Twenty years after the first prisoner was exonerated because of that science, states around the country have moved beyond questions about the quality and quantity of lawyers in death-penalty cases or how frequently these sentences are handed down when defendants of color are accused of killing white victims. Those issues made headlines in the late 1980s and 1990s. Today, death-penalty opponents are forcing debates about actual innocence and pushing for an end to capital punishment state by state.

“I think unfortunately there was a point, not so long ago, where even in some of the most liberal, progressive, even activist circles, doing away … with the death penalty was just another lost lefty cause,” said Diann Rust-Tierney, executive director of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. “But there’s no question, no question at all in my mind, that 20 years after the first condemned man that science proved to be innocent walked out of jail, there’s a new kind of momentum. We’ve truly turned some kind of corner.”

Indeed, 142 men and women have been exonerated after DNA tests showed that they did not commit the crimes for which they were sentenced to death. A new chorus of voices has joined the usual human rights collective who have long wanted to rid the country of capital punishment. Six states have eliminated capital punishment in the last six years, and at least two others are expected to follow in the near future, death-penalty opponents say.

Inside the NAACP — the nation’s largest and oldest civil rights organization — organizers are beginning to speak quietly but openly about a state-by-state movement to abolish the death penalty that includes a national endgame. There’s even talk of eventually bringing a case to the U.S. Supreme Court that asks the justices to eliminate capital punishment nationwide.