Death Goes To Congress

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AP / CBS
Death penalty politics won't take a holiday this election year.

Illinois has a moratorium on its executions due to a slew of botched death row cases. In Texas, Gov. George W. Bush's capital punishment record is under scrutiny as the Republican reaches for the White House. And now, Capitol Hill is jumping into the debate, too.

Sen. Patrick Leahy is proposing legislation in Congress that would require DNA testing where it's available and that would guarantee death row inmates receive good legal representation.

"Our bill is basically about fairness," the Vermont Democrat, former prosecutor, told CBS News' Face The Nation.

Leahy said his bill treats DNA as "a fingerprint of the 21st century, just as we made fingerprints available to defense attorneys and prosecutors in the last century, we should make DNA available."

But Rep. Bob Barr, also on Face The Nation, labeled the Leahy bill "anti-death penalty."

The Georgia Republican said the legislation "would essentially guarantee that you could never carry out a death penalty case, because it leaves everything completely open-ended, puts the federal government in charge of every death penalty case in the country."

Leahy insisted his legislation would not have that effect.

"What my bill does is encourages and gives money for competent counsel in the first place, so you don't have appeals and cases thrown out because of incompetent counsel," he said. "It makes DNA available if it's available, which most prosecutors will tell you will convict as many people as it will exonerate people."

Barr, another former prosecutor, said he didn't oppose DNA testing per se, but "what I object to is this enamoration of DNA testing that it will guarantee that no innocent person ever be executed. This is sort of a quest for the Holy Grail."

Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating, a Republican who borders Bush's state, told Face The Nation that DNA testing has its plusses and minuses.

"We had 168 of our neighbors and friends killed in the Oklahoma City bombing," said Keating, who last week signed a DNA testing bill in his state. "The last thing in the world we want is to have the guilty person on the street, the innocent person in jail."

Even so, Keating noted, "DNA testing is not the be all and end all. It can be handled improperly. It can be analyzed improperly."

And Barry Scheck, the DNA expert best known for his work in the O.J. Simpson case, agreed with Keating in a way, albeit from a different direction.

"DNA need not be the answer to everything, because the truth of the matter is that in the criminal justice system, most cases are not susceptible to DNA testing," said Scheck, who backs the Leahy bill.

"But," he added, "you still have the bad lawyers, the prosecutorial misconduct, the false confessions, the mistaken i.d.'s. We need to reform the entie system. DNA alone is not an answer. Let's not kid ourselves."