Tuesday, February 5, 2013

My Kingdom for Some DNA!

A horse! a horse! my kingdom for a horse!

Withdraw, my lord; I'll help you to a horse.

Slave, I have set my life upon a cast,
And I will stand the hazard of the die:
I think there be six Richmonds in the field;
Five have I slain to-day instead of him.
A horse! a horse! my kingdom for a horse!

Yesterday all sorts of news media were abuzz with Shakespearean news (of sorts). See, e.g., http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424127887324445904578283440611556344.html; http://www.cnn.com/2013/02/03/world/europe/richard-iii-search-announcement/index.html. The test results were in! Bones that had been disinterred from beneath a parking lot back in September, bones which scholars hypothesized to be the remains of King Richard III, had been subjected to testing and now some in the scientific community felt sufficiently confident to confirm the match.
I blawged about the initial discovery of the old bones back in September: http://truecomplaintshakespearelaw.blogspot.com/2012/09/curst-be-he-yt-moves-my-bones.html.
Now I feel compelled to note that the question has never been whether Richard III existed or whether he died in battle or even whether this king—who, after occupying the English throne for a very brief period before dying in a battle initiated by the ultimately triumphant Tudor clan (which still occupies England’s throne today)—had a physical deformity. The question is whether the charismatic, morally reprehensible guy depicted in Shakespeare’s famous play of the same name bears any other resemblance to the historical Richard. Sadly, a DNA match will not answer that question.
But DNA does answer some questions rather well—including some rather serious legal questions. Like probable guilt or “actual innocence” in cases involving horrific crimes. Back in the day of the OJ trial, folks didn’t quite get this. Now, everyone pretty much gets this. DNA evidence is now widely accepted as more rock-solid than most other kinds of evidence—like eye-witness testimony, which, with disturbing regularity, proves to be flat wrong, even when the witness has no intent to lie or even shade the truth. This is one reason why burying potentially exculpatory DNA evidence is a really bad thing.
Another more-local news item yesterday had to do with the fall-out from a prosecutor’s seemingly willful decision to bury all sorts of exculpatory evidence in a murder case that robbed the victim’s wrongly accused spouse of nearly twenty-five years. An innocent man languished in a Texas prison while the prosecutor responsible for the bogus conviction went on to become a state court judge. Now that’s a story.
Let’s hope the inquiry into that particular horror will ultimately elicit as much interest as the identification of a missing medieval monarch’s old bag of bones.

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