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High Court: Convicts Have No Right To Test DNA


This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Michele Norris.


And I'm Robert Siegel.

A closely divided Supreme Court ruled today on a case involving DNA and criminals. The court said convicted criminals do not have a constitutional right to get access to evidence containing DNA - evidence they might seek in hopes of proving their innocence. The decision will have a limited affect since 47 states, and the federal government, have enacted laws that do give convicted criminals that access.

NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg reports.

NINA TOTENBERG: Today's decision came in the case of William Osborne, an Alaska man convicted 16 years ago of a brutal rape and assault. The DNA testing used at the time did link Osborne to the rape, but it was a rudimentary procedure that also linked some 16 percent of all African-Americans to the crime.

Since then, however, DNA testing techniques have advanced so dramatically that the testing is close to ironclad in its certainty when properly done and 240 people have been exonerated after similar post-conviction tests.

So Osborne, hoping to prove his innocence with new DNA testing that was not available at the time of his trial, sought access to the condom and pubic hairs from the crime scene for DNA testing that he said he would pay for himself. The state of Alaska rejected his request as did the state courts, which say that the evidence against him was overwhelming. He was implicated by his co-defendant, his victim identified him and he even admitted guilt when he was seeking a parole.

Today, the U.S. Supreme Court, by a five-to-four vote, sustained Alaska's refusal. Writing for the five-member court majority, Chief Justice John Roberts conceded that DNA testing has an unparalleled ability both to exonerate the wrongly convicted and to identify the guilty. But, he said, establishing a constitutional right to post-conviction DNA testing would force the courts to act as policymakers, answering questions such as: must forensic evidence be preserved and for how long.

At the end of the day, he said, there's no reason to suppose the courts are any better at that than state legislatures, especially when to do so would short-circuit what he called a prompt and considered legislative response from the states and the federal government.

Alaska is, in fact, very much an outlier on this front. While Alaska, Massachusetts and Oklahoma have not enacted statutes providing for some post-conviction DNA testing, Massachusetts and Oklahoma prosecutors and judges have often provided for such testing, while Alaska has never done so.

Peter Neufeld of the Innocence Project says today's ruling will thus lead to limited but sometimes tragic consequences.

Mr. PETER NEUFELD (Co-Director, Innocence Project): There will be a small group of people who are outside those good state statues with a good federal law who will be innocent but, nevertheless, denied access to DNA testing. And that small group of people will continue to languish in prison. Some of them will probably die in prison despite the fact that they're actually innocent.

TOTENBERG: Nebraska Attorney General Jon Bruning, president of the National Association of Attorneys General, however, applauded today's ruling.

Mr. JON BRUNING (President, National Association of Attorneys General): I think the process is working. I think the states do a good job at this. And what we really don't want to see is a place where any inmate can ask for DNA testing for any reason. At the point at which we allow that to happen, it's going to be incredibly expensive. And remember, prisons are full of people who say they didn't do it.

TOTENBERG: Scott Burns, executive director of the National District Attorneys Association, admits to some ambivalence.

Mr. SCOTT BURNS (Executive Director, National District Attorneys Association): I think they have to be analyzed on a case-by-case basis. But with that said, again, if there's any question at all and if there's any way that a forensic test would be helpful, I think the vast majority of prosecutors and of Americans, I think we ought to do the test.

TOTENBERG: The vote in today's case fell along familiar lines, with the court's conservatives voting against requiring DNA testing and the court's liberals voting for it in limited circumstances. Writing for the dissenters, Justice John Paul Stevens said, the DNA test here would cost the state nothing and is both simple and uniquely precise. There's no reason to deny access for the test, he said, and many reasons to provide it, not the least of which is a fundamental concern in ensuring that justice has been done in this case.

Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Nina Totenberg is NPR's award-winning legal affairs correspondent. Her reports air regularly on NPR's critically acclaimed newsmagazines All Things Considered, Morning Edition, and Weekend Edition.