Of all the preposterous legal situations we’ve read about in recent years, an effort this week to halt a DNA inquiry in a Tennessee execution review might just take the cake.
The case in question is that of Sedley Alley, whom the state executed 13 years ago despite his own request for DNA testing in 2004. Alley had confessed to killing 19-year-old Marine Lance Cpl. Suzanne Collins in Millington in 1985, but he later said the confession was coerced.
According to the Memphis Commercial Appeal, then-Gov. Phil Bredesen ordered a brief delay of Alley’s execution so that Tennessee courts could consider extra testing, which the state Supreme Court ultimately refused.
Alley’s daughter, April, recently petitioned the court for DNA testing after law enforcement officers in St. Louis contacted her attorneys about an alternative suspect. Among her attorneys is Barry Scheck, co-founder of the Innocence Project, a criminal justice reform advocacy organization for the prevention of wrongful conviction. Scheck has argued that a subsequent ruling from Tennessee’s Supreme Court, years after Alley was executed, opened the door for the testing to take place now.
The Associated Press reported that the daughter’s attorneys on Monday argued she should be allowed to petition for the testing on behalf of her father’s estate. The state’s response — in the form of Shelby County Assistant District Attorney General Steve Jones — was in part that the state’s DNA analysis law allows only the person convicted of the crime to request testing.
Sedley Alley is dead. He cannot petition the state for anything — DNA or otherwise. Jones knows that. The court knows that.
The state, of course, does not want Alley’s case reopened. If indeed Tennessee executed an innocent man, the fallout could be both financially and politically volatile.
According to the Innocence Project’s website, DNA has exonerated 367 defendants, including 130 people convicted of murder, since 1989. Among them was Paul House, a Tennessee man who served 22 years on death row before his exoneration via DNA testing in 2009.
Even the staunchest defenders of the death penalty should recognize that the potential for error means that the measure — given its irreversible finality — must be carried out only when all evidence has been exhaustively examined.
It may or may not have been in the Alley case. That’s for the courts to decide on the merits of the petition.
But Jones argued against the daughter’s petition with the position that the estate lacks the necessary standing — only her dead father would have it. Regardless of Alley’s guilt or innocence or the merits of the death penalty itself, the absurdity is mind-boggling.
If the court agrees with Jones, the state of Tennessee could be infinitely protected against post-execution revelations of innocence via DNA.
-The Johnson City Press