June 19, 2009
Unparalleled and Denied
In an appalling 5-to-4 ruling on Thursday, the Supreme Court’s conservative majority tossed aside compelling due process claims, the demands of justice and a considered decision by a lower federal appeals court to deny the right of prisoners to obtain post-conviction DNA testing that might prove their innocence.
The inmate at the center of the case, William G. Osborne, is in prison in Alaska after a 1994 rape conviction based in part on a DNA test of semen from a condom recovered at the scene.
The state used an old method, known as DQ-alpha testing, that could not identify, with great specificity, the person to whom the DNA belonged. The high court sided with Alaska in its refusal to grant Mr. Osborne access to the physical evidence, the semen. His intent was to obtain a more advanced DNA test that was not available at the time of his trial and that prosecutors agreed could almost definitively prove his guilt or innocence.
Writing for the majority, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. noted the “unparalleled ability” to prove guilt or innocence using DNA evidence. But he treated that breakthrough more as an irritant than an opportunity.
The availability of conclusive DNA testing, he wrote, “cannot mean that every criminal conviction, or even every criminal conviction involving biological evidence, is suddenly in doubt.”
The chief justice further worried that establishing a “freestanding and far-reaching constitutional right of access” to DNA evidence would short-circuit efforts underway by federal and state governments to develop rules to control access to such evidence. Yet Alaska is one of four states that does not have laws giving prisoners access to DNA evidence that could establish their innocence — a dismal reality underscoring the need for Supreme Court intervention.
Of course, there is a value to finality of verdicts and not allowing prisoners to endlessly challenge their convictions. But the chief justice and his concurring colleagues have their priorities all wrong.
Much as the four dissenters — Justices John Paul Stevens, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen G. Breyer and David H. Souter — saw, Alaska was wrong to block testing when DNA technology is available that may prove someone is unjustly being kept behind bars. Overturning Alaska’s denial of due process should have been an easy call.
As Justice Stevens noted in his dissent, “There is no reason to deny access to the evidence and there are many reasons to provide it.”
We are also puzzled and disturbed by the Obama administration’s decision to side with Alaska in this case — continuing the Bush administration’s opposition to recognizing a right to access physical evidence for post-conviction DNA testing.
Thursday’s ruling will inevitably allow some innocent people to languish in prison without having the chance to definitively prove their innocence and with the state never being completely certain of their guilt.
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