Science and the Death Penalty: DNA, Innocence, and the Debate over Capital Punishment in the United States
32 Pages Posted: 10 May 2009 Last revised: 10 Sep 2009
Date Written: May 8, 2009
The death penalty debate in the United States has recently undergone a fundamental shift. The possibility of executing the innocent has emerged as some abolitionists’ most salient argument, displacing debates over such issues as fairness, deterrence, and cost. Innocence has managed to move to the fore of the debate in part because of the epistemological certainty attached to one particular kind of postconviction exoneration, one vouched for by the authority of DNA evidence. We suggest that such rhetorical moves draw upon the epistemic authority of science as lever with which to challenge law’s claims to truth-making authority. A few abolitionists and other scholars have expressed misgivings about the abolitionist embrace of the innocence argument. We push this concern further, suggesting that both abolitionists and death penalty reformers, who seek to promote a “scientific” death penalty centered on DNA evidence, draw upon a mythologized notion of “science” as a producer of epistemic certainty. Paradoxically, this association of science with certainty is inconsistent with contemporary notions of science as characterized by efforts to measure, manage, but always acknowledge, uncertainty.
Keywords: death penalty, capital punishment, science, DNA, innocence, abolition
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