ILNews

DNA-access ruling may have limited impact

Michael W. Hoskins
June 18, 2009
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A ruling today from the nation's highest court says convicts don't have any constitutional right to test state DNA evidence after their convictions become final, but that decision may not impact Indiana or much of the country.

The Supreme Court of the United States issued a 62-page decision in District Attorney's Office v. William G. Osborne, No. 08-6, which by a split 5-4 vote said the task of writing rules to control access to DNA evidence belongs primarily to state legislatures.

Because the Indiana legislature already allows access to post-conviction DNA evidence for testing through a 2001 statute, and most states already allow that access in some form, the impact will likely be minimal and confined to the few states without those laws on the books.

"I look at this as a reminder to agencies and state legislatures that it's up to them to take the lead and to stay vigilant," said Will McAuliffe, executive director of the Indiana Coalition Acting to Suspend Executions. "Most states have some sort of provision allowing for defendants to petition for DNA access, so this really is reflective of the small number that don't."

The SCOTUS ruling comes from a case in the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in California involving the 1993 non-fatal rape, beating, and shooting of a prostitute in Alaska. Osborne was one of two men convicted and sentenced for the crime and got 26 years in prison. He later raised a federal constitutional claim that he had due process right to access the DNA evidence used against him for testing at his own expense. He won at the District and Circuit levels, gaining access to a blue condom used in the attack that he argued would firmly establish his guilt or innocence. But today's ruling reverses those earlier victories for Osborne on the grounds that he didn't have a right to that evidence under 42 U.S.C. § 1983.

Writing for the majority, Chief Justice John G. Roberts noted that DNA testing provides an "unparalleled ability" for someone to prove guilt or innocence, but its availability "... cannot mean that every criminal conviction, or even every criminal conviction involving biological evidence, is suddenly in doubt. The task of establishing rules to harness DNA's power to prove innocence without unnecessarily overthrowing the established criminal justice system belongs primarily to the legislature."

To suddenly constitutionalize this area would short-circuit what looks to be a prompt and considered legislative response, the chief justice wrote.

Justices Samuel Alito and Anthony Kennedy wrote a separate concurring opinion that went further, saying that these claims should not be allowed in civil rights litigation but through only a habeas corpus plea, and that if a defense attorney fails to request DNA access during trial as a tactical reason, there is no constitutional right to see that access post-conviction.

Meanwhile, Justice John Paul Stevens dissented because he believes Osborne had a constitutional right to access that DNA evidence; Justice David Souter also dissented, stopping short of the constitutional question and writing he would have allowed the access on procedural, state-statute grounds.

Nationally, figures show that DNA testing has led to the exoneration of more than 200 people who've been convicted of murder, rape, or other violent crimes. That includes several in Indiana, who've been assisted by national wrongful-conviction advocates and attorneys and law school clinics at Indiana University School of Law - Indianapolis and Northwestern University School of Law.

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  1. The Conour embarrassment is an example of why it would be a good idea to NOT name public buildings or to erect monuments to "worthy" people until AFTER they have been dead three years, at least. And we also need to stop naming federal buildings and roads after a worthless politician whose only achievement was getting elected multiple times (like a certain Congressman after whom we renamed the largest post office in the state). Also, why have we renamed BOTH the Center Township government center AND the new bus terminal/bum hangout after Julia Carson?

  2. Other than a complete lack of any verifiable and valid historical citations to back your wild context-free accusations, you also forget to allege "ate Native American children, ate slave children, ate their own children, and often did it all while using salad forks rather than dinner forks." (gasp)

  3. "So we broke with England for the right to "off" our preborn progeny at will, and allow the processing plant doing the dirty deeds (dirt cheap) to profit on the marketing of those "products of conception." I was completely maleducated on our nation's founding, it would seem. (But I know the ACLU is hard at work to remedy that, too.)" Well, you know, we're just following in the footsteps of our founders who raped women, raped slaves, raped children, maimed immigrants, sold children, stole property, broke promises, broke apart families, killed natives... You know, good God fearing down home Christian folk! :/

  4. Who gives a rats behind about all the fluffy ranking nonsense. What students having to pay off debt need to know is that all schools aren't created equal and students from many schools don't have a snowball's chance of getting a decent paying job straight out of law school. Their lowly ranked lawschool won't tell them that though. When schools start honestly (accurately) reporting *those numbers, things will get interesting real quick, and the looks on student's faces will be priceless!

  5. Whilst it may be true that Judges and Justices enjoy such freedom of time and effort, it certainly does not hold true for the average working person. To say that one must 1) take a day or a half day off work every 3 months, 2) gather a list of information including recent photographs, and 3) set up a time that is convenient for the local sheriff or other such office to complete the registry is more than a bit near-sighted. This may be procedural, and hence, in the near-sighted minds of the court, not 'punishment,' but it is in fact 'punishment.' The local sheriffs probably feel a little punished too by the overwork. Registries serve to punish the offender whilst simultaneously providing the public at large with a false sense of security. The false sense of security is dangerous to the public who may not exercise due diligence by thinking there are no offenders in their locale. In fact, the registry only informs them of those who have been convicted.

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