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DNA Testing Beyond Death Row: In Colder Blood

• December 19, 2012 • 4:27 PM

In 2000, only two U.S. states had laws allowing post-conviction access to DNA testing. A dozen years later, 49 states – Oklahoma is the odd man out — have some kind of laws on the books. In February, Massachusetts got a new DNA access law. Kentucky introduced but did not pass legislation this year to allow for expanded DNA testing post-conviction; currently, testing is only accessible to death row inmates.

So wrote Sue Russell this fall as part of her series on righting wrongful convictions. The focus on death row is, of course, to catch mistakes before it’s irreparably late. But yesterday, two convicted—and executed—murderers’ bodies were dug up in blustery Lansing, Kansas to see not if they were truly guilty of the crime they went to gallows for, but for another set of killings in another state. Samples were taken from each set of remains, which were then reburied. (I have family buried in Leavenworth and its prison-industrial complex twin of Lansing, and wonder if I’ve stepped over the graves without realizing who lay beneath.)

Richard Hickock and Perry Smith were hung by the state of Kansas on April 14, 1965, for the murders of the Clutter family in the small town of Holcomb, a crime rightly (or wrongly) immortalized in Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood.” But based on timing, geography, history, and motive, there was a possibility they butchered another family of four, the Walkers, in the small town of Osprey, Florida, just over a month after killing the Clutters.

Well before they hung from their necks until dead, the duo took a polygraph examination and were asked if they had killed the Walkers. They said no and the test–keep in mind lie-detecting technology then was even sadder than it is today–said they were telling the truth. Nonetheless, no one else was convicted of the crime and the pair remained persons of interest. As Kyle Smith, deputy director of the Kansas Bureau of Investigation, told the AP re: the polygraph, “Sometimes you just have to wait for the technology to catch up to the need.”

The same could be said of DNA testing. Some semen left at the Florida crime scene (mother Christine Walker was beaten and raped) can now be successfully tested, along with DNA taken from the Kansas killers’ aged bone marrow. As Smith said, “We can get smaller samples, more decayed samples, and still get matches. They could have tried this 20 years ago and maybe used up what biological samples they had and gotten nothing from it.”

It will be a while before results will be seen: Kansas authorities give a higher priority to catching live evildoers than adding to the tally of dead ones.

Michael Todd
Most of Michael Todd's career has been spent in newspaper journalism, ranging from papers in the Marshall Islands to tiny California farming communities. Before joining the publishing arm of the Miller-McCune Center, he was managing editor of the national magazine Hispanic Business.

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