Recently, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals denied a request for additional DNA testing from Ruben Gutierrez, a death row inmate from Brownsville. He was convicted in 1999 for stabbing a trailer park manager to death 14 times with a screwdriver. Gutierrez denies that he was responsible. He claims that there was no evidence that he was ever at the scene of the crime and also that he was coerced into making several statements in violation of his Fourteenth Amendment rights.
The question that comes to mind is “Who was that man’s attorney?” The article notes that Gutierrez requested a court-appointed attorney to file a motion for more DNA evidence. Did he have one to represent him at trial, but could not afford one for the appeals? Was his attorney ineffective for failing to request DNA testing at the point in the proceedings when it would have made the greatest impact? It’s unfortunate, because a savvy state or federal criminal defense attorney would have known when seek DNA evidence. He also would have advised Gutierrez on his rights during a police interrogation.
Far from “muddying the waters,” DNA evidence could reveal Gutierrez’s role in the crime, if any. DNA evidence was first tested for criminal cases in the 1980s, and has been critical to trial and post-conviction exoneration ever since. It has a remarkably high success rate — a 350 million to one chance of an incorrect match. Therefore, it has proven conclusively time and again that a criminal defendant was not at the scene of the crime, resulting in the defendant’s release.
DNA testing is not just for death row cases. It can be used to exonerate someone facing a life sentence for drug trafficking or another serious state or federal crime. It’s just a matter of whether someone was at the scene of the crime. A strand of hair on the floor, saliva on a toothpick, sweat on a mask… all of these can serve as DNA evidence to convict or exonerate. Though the testing process can take several weeks, it is worth it if someone wrongly convicted of a crime goes free. It is especially worth it in death row cases: 17 death row inmates have been released due to DNA evidence since 1989.
The Court of Criminal Appeals would lose little by granting Gutierrez the right to conduct additional DNA testing. Better they find out now that Gutierrez is definitely guilty than learn of his innocence after he has been executed. Right now, Gutierrez’s next step is unknown. It may be too late to save him from death row. But for another defendant out there with a seasoned criminal attorney, DNA evidence may provide a second chance.