All about the DNA Revolution
A Tool for Conviction
In 1995, Ricky McGinn got the death sentence for the rape and murder of his stepdaughter, Stephanie Rae Flanary. She was only twelve. Her mother had left her in McGinn's care on the day she was killed and he claimed that she had gotten sick after they drank beer together. She had dozed off, then awakened and went for a walk. He waited around but she never returned. Three days later, her body, bludgeoned with an ax, was found in a culvert.
Although McGinn protested his innocence, this was not his first murder trial. He'd been arrested before on an unrelated case, but acquitted; he'd also been accused of rape, but charges were not filed; and his own daughter had said that he had molested her. Nevertheless, the 43-year-old mechanic claimed just before his scheduled execution on June 1, 2000, that the advanced DNA testing methods unavailable in 1994 would exonerate him.
During the autopsy of Stephanie's body, a single pubic hair was found inside her vagina, but the state of DNA testing at the time could not make a conclusive match. Over the years since then the methodology had improved, but McGinn's lawyer was slow in getting new tests done. When all of his appeals failed, McGinn was scheduled to die. Only an official reprieve could grant him a temporary stay. Barry Scheck, renowned for his DNA work on the O. J. Simpson defense and on behalf of numerous innocent men, wrote a compelling brief to the court. A judge affirmed that testing should be done. With the clock ticking, now it was the governor's turn.
The state was Texas, also known as the country's death penalty capital, and the governor was George W. Bush, who had shown little patience in the past for appeals. He had never once exercised his authority to stop an execution. However, McGinn's appeal made the national spotlight and the press pointed out how many falsely-convicted men had been freed by DNA technology: Would Bush show compassion and allow justice to be done or would he take the hard line that a jury had found the man guilty and that was the end of the story?
Bush was in the midst of a bid for the presidency. The media pressured him to take a stand. He was briefed about the case and had to make a quick decision. Time was running out because McGinn was scheduled to die in Huntsville that very day.
With only eighteen minutes to go, McGinn received word that he had been granted thirty more days. Bush said that he did not want to take the gamble that post-execution testing might prove the man to be innocent. Within the next thirty days, the most advanced DNA testing was to be done on the pubic hair and on what looked like a semen stain on Stephanie's shorts.
McGinn was relieved. He assured everyone that these tests would tell the real story: He was not young Stephanie's killer. Or at the very least, he had not raped her, which was all he needed to get his sentence reduced to life. Rape had been the "aggravating circumstance" in the decision to give him death.
However, there was other evidence against him: Stephanie's blood was type-A, and type-A blood was found on a roofer's hammer that was discovered under the seat of McGinn's truck. There was also a drop of blood on his shoe, some blood on his shorts and some in his car. He insisted that he had been framed and his defense attorney implied that the police had planted the hammer.
Some of the media had set up the story to make it look as if another man who seemed to have everything going against him was indeed innocent, and only DNA was on his side. But that's not how it went. The tests came back positive: The pubic hair matched McGinn's physical blueprint. He was the rapist. His murder conviction stood and his execution was rescheduled. On September 27th, 2000, Ricky McGinn died by lethal injection. His last words were, "I don't want nobody to be bitter. Keep clean hearts and I'll see y'all on the other side."
It's surprising that a killer would insist on having such a conclusive test done. Was it some powerful form of denial or might he just have been buying some time? No one will ever know.
The success of DNA testing has led to a movement in law enforcement to set up a central DNA data bank, much like the fingerprinting data back at the FBI, but the specimens are limited to criminals—and often criminals of a certain type. The National DNA Index System (NDIS) enables forensic labs across the country to compare DNA electronically so that serial crimes can be linked. All fifty states have passed legislation requiring certain offenders to provide samples for the database.
However, such databases are controversial: They appear to be a greater invasion of privacy than fingerprinting. Civil libertarians and defense lawyers are uneasy, and one case in California brought out some of the problems:
A suspect in a 1994 rape in Sacramento was identified on a warrant only by his DNA type. Soon Paul E. Robinson was arrested and charged. A state computer had matched his genetic code from samples gathered on an unrelated matter to the code in the warrant. Law officers believed they had stopped a serial rapist who had attacked five women, but Robinson's lawyer argued that his genetic code should never have been entered into the state's computer. Such a procedure has been approved only for certain offenses and his did not fit within the range. The deputy district attorney said it was a great test case, but its ramifications are not yet known. Other such "no-name" warrants are out there around the country and no doubt the controversy will only heat up.
Yet while DNA may be weighty proof that someone has been present at a crime scene, it has also been a central tool in exonerating the innocent.