Supreme Court to convicts: No constitutional right to DNA testing

Conservative majority opinion limits prisoners’ chances to prove innocence.

Susan Walsh/AP
On Thursday, the Supreme Court, shown here, ruled that prisoners have no constitutional right to DNA testing that might prove their innocence long after their convictions.

The Supreme Court ruled Thursday that prisoners have no constitutional right to DNA testing that might prove their innocence long after their convictions.

In the court’s first examination of how to deal with the rapidly evolving field of DNA evidence, the court’s conservative majority prevailed in ruling against establishing a post-conviction constitutional right to DNA evidence.

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote for the majority and said that almost every state and Congress had provided ways for prisoners to get testing that might prove their innocence. This is not the time for federal courts to get involved in the process, he said.

“The elected governments of the states are actively confronting the challenges DNA technology poses to our criminal justice systems and our traditional notions of finality, as well as the opportunities it affords,” Roberts wrote. “To suddenly constitutionalize this area would short-circuit what looks to be a prompt and considered legislative response.”

Roberts acknowledged that Alaska is one of a handful of cases that has not passed such a law, but he said the state’s courts provide a way for prisoners to get access to DNA evidence.

But that has not helped William G. Osborne, who was convicted of the rape and assault of a prostitute in a secluded area near the Anchorage International Airport in 1993. Osborne wanted to pay for a more advanced test of semen found in a condom at the crime scene, one that prosecutors agree would almost definitively prove his guilt or innocence.

Justice John Paul Stevens said Alaska’s refusal to allow the testing is the reason the court should have found there is a constitutional right.

“On the record before us, there is no reason to deny access to the evidence and there are many reasons to provide it, not least of which is a fundamental concern in ensuring that justice has been done in this case,” he wrote. He was joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer.

Justice David H. Souter said Alaska should allow Osborne access to the DNA evidence, but did not join the others in saying there should be a constitutional right to such testing.

Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas and Samuel A. Alito Jr. agreed with Roberts.

Those representing Osborne, who at times has both professed his innocence and confessed to the crime, said there is too much variance even in the states that have provided DNA testing.

But Roberts said that was no reason for federal courts to “leap ahead” of the changes states are making in criminal procedure.

“Federal courts should not presume that state criminal procedures will be inadequate to deal with technological change,” he wrote. “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.”

The Innocence Project, whose lawyers represented Osborne, said DNA testing has exonerated 232 prisoners, 17 of whom had been sentenced to death.

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