Monday, June 22, 2009

Do capital defendants have the right to be DNA tested?

In a 5-4 ruling on June 18, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed a lower federal court ruling holding that the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment guarantees a convicted inmate the right to a DNA test on evidence that might prove his innocence. The defendant, William Osborne, had been convicted in 1994 of sexual assault in Alaska and sentenced to 26 years in prison. Alaska is one of only 4 states in the country that does not have a law providing for access to DNA evidence (the other 3 are Alabama, Massachusetts, and Oklahoma, though Alabama recently passed a law allowing limited access to DNA for death row inmates). Osborne was willing to pay for the test, which the state admitted might have conclusively proven his guilt or innocence.
While acknowledging the revolutionary importance of DNA testing in the criminal justice system, Chief Justice John Roberts, writing for the majority, said that it would be better to allow states to develop their own procedures for utilizing this forensic tool. He wrote: "Federal courts should not presume that state criminal procedures will be inadequate to deal with technological change. The criminal justice system has historically accommodated new types of evidence, and is a time-tested means of carrying out society’s interest in convicting the guilty while respecting individual rights. That system, like any human endeavor, cannot be perfect. DNA evidence shows that it has not been. But there is no basis for Osborne’s approach of assuming that because DNA has shown that these procedures are not flawless, DNA evidence must be treated as categorically outside the process, rather than within it."

5 comments:

Ilíon said...

The problem is that (as a general rule), the lawyers for neither the prosecution nor the defense care about or seek justice.

SE said...

The problem is that (as a general rule), the lawyers for neither the prosecution nor the defense care about or seek justice.

Exactly.

Why, though, would any state want to deny someone the possibility of proving their innocence? Simply because government is rarely concerned about justice, and more concerned with preserving its raw power.

One Brow said...

I agree that the states should make every effort to accomodate defendents who can make reasonable claims about the availability of DNA evidence, especially if this can be done at no cost to the state. However, it may be going too far to say this is a right, which would impose many more additional burdens on a state.

Ilíon said...

It's a matter of federalism -- the States are not creatures of the US government; rather the US government is a creature of the States.

Reading even the small bit of the opinion which VR has posted, it's clear that the justices are attempting to respect that basic Constitutional fact.

Ilíon said...

*Also* the particular person here was not a "capital defendant:"

"The defendant, William Osborne, had been convicted in 1994 of sexual assault in Alaska and sentenced to 26 years in prison."