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Why do states resist posthumous DNA tests to exonerate people?

by | May 24, 2021 | Wrongful Convictions

Ledell Lee always insisted on his innocence. He was convicted of a shocking murder – the 1993 strangulation and bludgeoning of a 26-year-old woman, but he always denied that he had been the perpetrator. His sister has been fighting for years to prove his innocence, as have lawyers with the Innocence Project and the ACLU.

Those efforts included an attempt to have crime scene DNA tested to show it didn’t match Ledell, but prosecutors and the courts rebuffed their efforts. One federal court brushed aside his claim of actual innocence because he had “simply delayed too long.”

It’s too late now to save Ledell’s life. Arkansas put him to death by lethal injection in 2017.

Now, however, that crime scene DNA has finally been tested. The genetic material found on the weapon and other pieces of evidence belongs to another, unknown man.

In light of that fact, it is extremely likely that Arkansas executed a completely innocent person. The state also failed to find and prosecute the real murderer.

At a recent press conference, Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson defended the state’s decision to execute Ledell, which some had said was rushed. He pointed out that a jury had found Ledell guilty. He called the new DNA tests “inconclusive.” They were not.

Tennessee appeals court refuses to posthumously test DNA in 1985 murder

In another state, a posthumous DNA test might prove the innocence of Sedley Alley, who was executed in 2006. However, prosecutors refused to do so and the courts have said that his estate has no right to expect a DNA test at this point.

The test was requested by Sedley’s estate as represented by his daughter and the Innocence Project. They argue that the state made a mistake in 2006 by refusing to test the crime scene DNA before executing Sedley. Indeed, the Tennessee Supreme Court admitted that it had been a mistake to refuse the test at that time.

“If that testing had occurred 15 years ago,” said Barry Scheck, co-founder of the Innocence Project, “it’s possible that the person who actually committed this crime would have been identified and held accountable.”

The truth is that posthumous DNA testing is not a priority for states and prosecutors. Why not? Perhaps the discomfort of having to admit they prosecuted, convicted and executed an innocent person. It may be that they don’t want to admit that mistakes are made in death penalty cases.

Whatever the reason, refusing to test DNA in old cases may leave the real perpetrators free and able to commit additional crimes.

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