Lawyers with the Innocence Project expressed disappointment on Thursday after the US Supreme Court ruled that one of their clients did not enjoy a constitutional right to test biological evidence used to convict him years earlier.
"Most of the people who need DNA testing to prove their innocence will not be affected by today's ruling, but the small number of people who are impacted may suffer greatly," said Peter Neufeld, co-director of the New York-based Innocence Project, which has helped reverse 240 convictions through DNA testing.
Mr. Neufeld argued the case before the high court.
In a 5 to 4 decision, the Supreme Court said state authorities in Alaska did not violate the constitutional rights of a convicted rapist when they refused to allow him to test the DNA evidence in his case years after his conviction.
The majority justices said William Osborne had adequate means to pursue his post-conviction investigation via state procedures and court rulings in Alaska.
Forty-seven states and the federal government have passed laws providing access to post-conviction DNA testing, according to the Innocence Project.
In a statement after the ruling, Attorney General Eric Holder noted that the court's decision would have a limited impact. "The court merely spoke about what is constitutional, not what is good policy," he said.
"This administration believes that defendants should be permitted access to DNA evidence in a range of circumstances," he said. Mr. Holder noted the passage in 2004 of a federal law guaranteeing DNA access in federal cases.
"I hope that in light of today's decision all levels of government will follow the federal government's lead by working to expand access to DNA evidence," he said.
Others viewed the decision on a more personal level.
"This ruling is devastating because the Supreme Court was William's last hope," said Evelyn Smalls, Osborne's sister, in a statement. "Alaska should have a law for DNA testing in cases like this, and we hope they pass one quickly."
Thursday's high court ruling stems from a brutal crime near Anchorage, Alaska in 1993. Dexter Jackson and another man hired a prostitute. They drove her to a remote location where they raped and robbed her at gunpoint. The men beat her with an ax handle, shot at her, and then, assuming she was dead, buried her in the snow. She did not die.
Later, police found ballistics evidence at the scene and a used blue condom that had belonged to the prostitute.
Under police questioning, Mr. Jackson identified William Osborne as the other man involved in the attack. Osborne denies it.
The condom was tested and showed a DNA match to Osborne. But DNA testing technology was not as precise in the 1990s as it is today. The test would have shown a match with approximately 15-16 percent of African-American men, according to experts.
At the time of his trial, Osborne's lawyer decided not to conduct an independent and more precise DNA test. The lawyer made a strategic calculation that such a test might provide stronger evidence of her client's guilt.
Nonetheless, the jury found Osborne guilty of sexual assault and kidnapping. He was sentenced to 26 years in prison. On appeal, Osborne argued that his lawyer should have pushed for independent DNA testing. In addition, he claimed a right to conduct new tests on the biological material using more sophisticated and accurate technology than existed at the time of his trial.
While his appeal was pending, Osborne applied for parole. As part of that process he was required to confess under oath to the rape and other crimes. He was released on parole in 2007.
Osborne wasn't free for long. Within six months he was arrested for a different crime – an armed home invasion in which four victims were bound with duct tape and pistol whipped.