Lawmakers criticize ruling on DNA testing

Lawmakers on Thursday criticized a 5-4 Supreme Court decision stipulating that prisoners have no constitutional right to obtain post-conviction access to a state’s evidence for DNA testing.

In District Attorney’s Office for the Third Judicial District v. Osborne, Justice Anthony Kennedy joined the Court’s four conservative justices in the majority. Chief Justice John Roberts authored the majority’s opinion.

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Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) said, “I am disappointed that this narrow Supreme Court ruling denied access to post-conviction DNA testing for a defendant who wanted to prove his innocence.

“As Justice Stevens wrote in dissent, ‘The DNA test [the defendant] seeks is a simple one, its cost modest, and its results uniquely precise . . . . To overcome this result, I will continue to work to make modern DNA testing available whenever possible to strengthen our criminal justice system,' " Leahy added.     

Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), chairman of the Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, joined Leahy in condemning the high court’s decision.

“Today’s Supreme Court decision violates our fundamental notion of fairness and due process of the law. To me, it is common sense that a defendant should have the constitutional right to conduct a test that would establish conclusively whether he is guilty or innocent of an alleged crime."

William Osborne, the defendant in the case, was convicted of sexual assault and other crimes in an Alaska state court in 1993. In the state of Alaska, a prisoner must either get the consent of the state or obtain a court order to access DNA evidence. He sought access to the DNA by asking the state for its consent and petitioning the court, but was unsuccessful.

Unable to obtain access to the DNA, Osborne years later filed a claim in federal court asserting that he had a constitutional right to access the DNA under the due process clause. Osborne said he was willing to pay for the test, placing no burden on the state.

The lower court held that Osborne did have a limited constitutional right to access the DNA evidence based on the fact that the testing was not available at the time of the trial.

The Innocence Project, which represented Osborne, noted today that “In states without adequate laws granting DNA testing, federal court can be the last option — as it was for Osborne.”

But on Thursday, the Supreme Court reversed the opinion of the lower court, holding that it had erred.

“The question is whether further change will primarily be made by legislative revision and judicial interpretation of the existing system or whether the Federal Judiciary must leap ahead — revising (or even discarding) the system by creating a new constitutional right,” Roberts wrote.

The majority Thursday acknowledged the persuasive power of DNA for determining guilt or innocence.

“Modern testing of DNA can provide powerful new evidence unlike anything known before,” Roberts wrote.

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Still, the high court rejected the idea that DNA alone is the panacea that will clear up all doubt about the guilt or innocence of a person.

 “At the same time, DNA testing alone does not always resolve a case. Where there is other incriminating evidence and an explanation for the DNA results, science alone cannot prove a prisoner innocent,” Roberts wrote.

Writing the dissenting opinion was Justice Stevens, who took issue with the majority’s holding that Osborne has no right to access DNA under the due process clause.

The Supreme Court, Stevens wrote, has granted certain “protections to state prisoners on the premise of the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment” in the past, pointing to cases where the court granted prisoners the right to marry, the right to free speech and the right to the free exercise of religion, among others, all through the Due Process Clause.

“It is therefore far too late in the day to question the basic proposition that convicted persons such as Osborne retain a constitutionally protected measure of interest in liberty,” Stevens wrote. “The fact that nearly all the states have now recognized some post-conviction right to DNA evidence makes it more, not less, appropriate to recognize a limited federal right to such evidence where litigants are unfairly barred from obtaining relief in state court.”