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Interview With George Ryan, Victor Weedn

Aired August 12, 2003 - 20:28   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: A recent decision by a judge in Boston is sure to renew the nationwide debate over the death penalty. Federal Judge Mark Wolf cited the growing number of exonerations based on DNA testing and he wrote that the day may come when the death penalty can and should be declared unconstitutional in all cases but he added this. That day has not yet come. Will it? If so how soon?
Joining us from Los Angeles, the former Illinois Governor George Ryan, before leaving office last January he pardoned four condemned inmates and commuted the death sentences of 167 others.

And, in Pittsburgh is Dr. Victor Weedn. He's a forensic pathologist at Carnegie Mellon University. Thanks to both of you for joining us.

Governor Ryan, let me read to you a quote from Judge Wolf and he said this. "In the past decade, substantial evidence has emerged to demonstrate that innocent individuals are sentenced to death, and undoubtedly executed, much more often than previously understood." Do you know of any cases where an innocent person has been proven to have been executed wrongly?

GEORGE RYAN, FMR. ILLINOIS GOVERNOR: I don't know of any but I know of several that nearly came to pass in my state of Illinois. Out of 25 people on death row since 1976, 13 were exonerated with new evidence and new technology and 12 were executed.

Well, they're lousy odds, Wolf, and the judge is absolutely right. I'm amazed, though, that he came up with the decision not to act now. We have to ask ourselves as Americans what level of tolerance do we want to have. Is it 99 percent? Is it 100 percent? And, I think it ought to be 100 percent, nothing less.

BLITZER: Let's take a look at some recent polling numbers that would seem to show a significant change in attitude among the American public. A recent Pew research poll shows 78 percent of Americans supported capital punishment. That dropped down from -- but that's dropped to 64 percent today from 78 to 64 percent.

And, according to a Gallup poll even fewer Americans support the death penalty if life without parole is an option. Look at this, 53 percent. What do you make of those poll numbers?

RYAN: I think there's a growing trend. Most Americans support the death penalty, but they want a system that's going to be accurately and fairly and justly administered. And they don't believe that that's the case. In this same article you quoted, I think they said 19 out of 20 verdicts were rejected for the death penalty. I think that's an indication that people don't feel it's a fair and just system. It needs to be changed.

And I don't know why we need the death penalty anyway, frankly.

BLITZER: Doctor, we need...

RYAN: We've got to have a more...

BLITZER: I was going to say to doctor...

RYAN: We really need an international moratorium, Wolf, on the death penalty, one worldwide where we stop the death penalty to study it.

BLITZER: Well, I don't know if that is going to happen. But let me bring Dr. Weedn in, ask him you're a pioneer in DNA testing. Is DNA testing the driving force, at least in large measure behind this measure about perhaps eliminating the death penalty, ruling it unconstitutional?

DR. VICTOR WEEDN, FORENSIC PATHOLOGIST: Absolutely. DNA testing has shown or exposed problems in the criminal justice system over a large period of time, with a clarity not seen before. I think some of the reasons for that is, number one, biologic evidence is actually often present in many of these cases. Second, testing can be performed after years when that evidence sitting in crime lockers. Third, and perhaps most importantly is it's powerful. It is very, very powerful. It can identify the perpetrator or the source of that specimen.

BLITZER: On that point, Dr. Weedn, if it's so powerful, so so precise, accurate, couldn't it be used as justification for the death penalty in certainly the most heinous of crimes?

WEEDN: Clearly, it is used to substantiate the prosecution's case. But please recognize, DNA is not always present. Its presence doesn't necessarily mean a crime. Its absence doesn't mean the perpetrator didn't do it. But also, it must be done properly. Unfortunately, most crime labs in this country are underresourced. DNA is so powerful, it has to be done right.

BLITZER: Very quickly, Governor Ryan, very last word. If the DNA evidence is absolutely positively there, no question about it, what's wrong with the death penalty?

RYAN: Well, I think that we have had people that admitted that they were guilty when they weren't. DNA testing isn't 100 percent, but it's almost. My question of the need for the death penalty altogether is just based on how it's administered, not only in the death penalty but throughout the whole system. And I see no need for it, frankly.

BLITZER: All right, Governor Ryan, thanks very much. Dr. Weedn, thanks to you, well. TO ORDER A VIDEO OF THIS TRANSCRIPT, PLEASE CALL 800-CNN-NEWS OR USE OUR SECURE ONLINE ORDER FORM LOCATED AT

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