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Supreme Court Rejects Argument That Due Process Requires Access to DNA Testing

There is no federal constitutional right to post-conviction access to DNA evidence ruled the Supreme Court, by a 5-4 vote in Third Judicial District v. Osborne. Justice Kennedy delivered the swing vote, according to the Blog of the Legal Times. As discussed at The New York Times, the Court's decision reverses a 9th Circuit ruling, which held that the defendant, Osborne, was entitled to access DNA evidence under the Fourteenth Amendment Due Process clause, notwithstanding that his lawyer had failed to request DNA testing at trial. Ironically, Osborne's lawyer declined to seek DNA testing for strategic reasons; she feared that the results might show that Osborne was guilty. 

However, that quirky fact apparently did not play a role in the majority's ruling (though Scalia expressed some concern that Osborne did not fully and unequivocally declare his innocence in the affidavits accompanying his post-conviction request for DNA testing).  Instead, the majority, comprised of the Court's more conservative members, took a restrictive approach, choosing to not to make a "constitutional" case out of a matter that the Court believed was more appropriately resolved by the states.

Writing for the majority, Chief Justice Roberts acknowledged that “DNA testing has an unparalleled ability both to exonerate the wrongly convicted and to identify the guilty." However the majority was reluctant to constitutionalize the right to access DNA testing, since doing so could place every conviction involving biological evidence, is suddenly in doubt.” In addition, the Court noted that most states already established procedures by which defendants could request DNA testing, and that state legislatures, not federal courts, are the more appropriate fora for establishing rules by which defendants may "harness the power" of DNA testing.

Unfortunately, for Osborne, the defendant in the case, deference to the states does not provide much relief. While most states grant some form of access to DNA testing, Alaska is one of the few states that does not.

Meanwhile, Justice Stevens, writing for the dissent, expressed exasperation at the state for failing to justify its refusal to grant Osborne to access DNA testing:

The DNA test Osborne seeks is a simple one, its cost modest, and its results uniquely precise. Yet for reasons the State has been unable or unwilling to articulate, it refuses to allow Osborne to test the evidence at his own expense and to thereby ascertain the truth once and for all.

Stevens concluded that the state's failure to give any reason for denying access to DNA testing, which could exonerate Osborne, "constitutes arbitrary action that offends basic principles of due process."

Posted by Carolyn Elefant on June 18, 2009 at 04:32 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)


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