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“The practical difficulty with our government has been that most of those who have administered it have taken it for granted that the Constitution, as it is written, was a thing of no importance; that it neither said what it meant, nor meant what it said…”     Lysander Spooner

June 23, 2009

SCOTUS: No Constitutional Right for DNA Testing Post-Conviction

by Stephen Littau

Last week in District Attorney’s Office for the Third Judicial District et. al. v. Osborne the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that convicts have no Constitutional right to DNA testing even if such testing would conclusively determine the guilt or innocence of the convict. In this particular case, William Osborne was willing to pay for the DNA test at his own expense but the DA’s office refused to allow Osborne to have access to the sample. Roberts, writing for the court’s majority joined by Thomas, and Scalia, ruled against Osborne because of lack of legal precedents and that Osborne did not avail himself of the available evidence and technological advances at the time of trial. Alito with Kennedy joining wrote a concurring opinion in which Alito worried that allowing Osborne to have access to his DNA sample would flood the criminal justice system with demands that more DNA evidence be preserved. Both opinions stressed that the domain for making guidelines for DNA preservation and testing would better be handled by state legislatures rather than the federal courts.

First, some excerpts from Justice Roberts:

A criminal defendant proved guilty after a fair trial does not have the same liberty interests as a free man. At trial, the defendant is presumed innocent and may demand that the government prove its case beyond reasonable doubt. But “[o]nce a defendant has been afforded a fair trial and convicted of the offense for which he was charged, the presumption of innocence disappears.” Herrera v. Collins, 506 U. S. 390, 399 (1993). “Given a valid conviction, the criminal defendant has been constitutionally deprived of his liberty.” Dumschat, supra, at 464 (internal quotation marks and alterations omitted). (p. 15)

Osborne seeks access to state evidence so that he can apply new DNA-testing technology that might prove him innocent. There is no long history of such a right, and “[t]he mere novelty of such a claim is reason enough to doubt that ‘substantive due process’ sustains it.” Reno v. Flores, 507 U. S. 292, 303 (1993). (p. 19)

Establishing a freestanding right to access DNA evidence for testing would force us to act as policy makers, and our substantive-due-process rulemaking authority would not only have to cover the right of access but a myriad of other issues. We would soon have to decide if there is a constitutional obligation to preserve forensic evidence that might later be tested. Cf. Arizona v. Youngblood, 488 U. S. 51, 56–58 (1988). If so, for how long? Would it be different for different types of evidence? Would the State also have some obligation to gather such evidence in the first place? How much, and when? No doubt there would be a miscellany of other minor directives. See, e.g., Harvey v. Horan, 285 F. 3d 298, 300–301 (CA4 2002) (Wilkinson, C. J., concurring in denial of rehearing).

In this case, the evidence has already been gathered and preserved, but if we extend substantive due process to this area, these questions would be before us in short order, and it is hard to imagine what tools federal courts would use to answer them. At the end of the day, there is no reason to suppose that their answers to these questions would be any better than those of state courts and legislatures, and good reason to suspect the opposite. See Collins, supra, at 125; Glucksberg, supra, at 720.” (p. 20 & 21)

I think Roberts is making this issue more complicated than necessary. As he points out, the evidence has been preserved. There is no need to get into “policy making” to say that the DA must allow Osborne access to the sample that the DA physically possesses. And even if the presumption of innocence disappears and the burden of proof falls on Osborne to prove his innocence, how can he possibly attempt to do so without having the sample?

Now an except from Alito:

Respondent was convicted for a brutal sexual assault. At trial, the defense declined to have DNA testing done on a semen sample found at the scene of the crime. Defense counsel explained that this decision was made based on fear that the testing would provide further evidence of respondent’s guilt. After conviction, in an unsuccessful attempt to obtain parole, respondent confessed in detail to the crime. Now, respondent claims that he has a federal constitutional right to test the sample and that he can go directly to federal court to obtain this relief without giving the Alaska courts a full opportunity to consider his claim […]

[…]

[E]ven though respondent did not exhaust his state remedies, his claim may be rejected on the merits, see §2254(b)(2), because a defendant who declines the opportunity to perform DNA testing at trial for tactical reasons has no constitutional right to perform such testing after conviction.” (p. 1 & 2)

Stevens in his dissent (joined by Ginsburg and Breyer; Souter filed a concurring opinion) responded to the majority opinion as follows:

The State of Alaska possesses physical evidence that, if tested, will conclusively establish whether respondent William Osborne committed rape and attempted murder. If he did, justice has been served by his conviction and sentence. If not, Osborne has needlessly spent decades behind bars while the true culprit has not been brought to justice. 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. (p. 1)

The liberty protected by the Due Process Clause is not a creation of the Bill of Rights. Indeed, our Nation has long recognized that the liberty safeguarded by the Constitution has far deeper roots. See Declaration of Independence¶2 (holding it self-evident that “all men are. . . endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights,” among which are “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness”);see also Meachum v. Fano, 427 U. S. 215, 230 (1976) (STEVENS, J., dissenting). The “most elemental” of the liberties protected by the Due Process Clause is “the interest in being free from physical detention by one’s own government.” Hamdi v. Rumsfeld, 542 U. S. 507, 529 (2004) (plurality opinion); see Foucha v. Louisiana, 504 U. S. 71, 80 (1992) (“Freedom from bodily restraint has always been at the core of the liberty protected by the Due Process Clause”).

Although a valid criminal conviction justifies punitive detention, it does not entirely eliminate the liberty interests of convicted persons. For while a prisoner’s “rights may be diminished by the needs and exigencies of the institutional environment[,] . . . [t]here is no iron curtain drawn between the Constitution and the prisons of this country.” Wolff v. McDonnell, 418 U. S. 539, 555–556 (1974); Shaw v. Murphy, 532 U. S. 223, 228–229 (2001) (“[I]ncarceration does not divest prisoners of all constitutional protections”). Our cases have recognized protected interests in a variety of post conviction contexts, extending substantive constitutional protections to state prisoners on the premise that the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment requires States to respect certain fundamental liberties in the post conviction context. See, e.g., Thornburgh v. Abbott, 490 U. S. 401, 407 (p. 7 & 8)

Wow, if I didn’t know any better, I would think Stevens was of a libertarian or Lockean ideology because I think he is spot on in this case. There are times whenever “judicial activism” is necessary whenever state legislatures fail to uphold due process and other Constitutional protections.

Stevens continues:

The fact that nearly all the States have now recognized some post conviction right to DNA evidence makes it more, not less, appropriate to recognize a limited federal right to such evidence in cases where litigants are unfairly barred from obtaining relief in state court. (p. 9)

Throughout the course of state and federal litigation, the State has failed to provide any concrete reason for denying Osborne the DNA testing he seeks, and none is apparent. Because Osborne has offered to pay for the tests, cost is not a factor. And as the State now concedes, there is no reason to doubt that such testing would provide conclusive confirmation of Osborne’s guilt or revelation of his innocence.7 In the courts below, the State refused to provide an explanation for its refusal to permit testing of the evidence, see Brief for Respondent 33, and in this Court, its explanation has been, at best, unclear. Insofar as the State has articulated any reason at all, it appears to be a generalized interest in protecting the finality of the judgment of conviction from any possible future attacks. See Brief for Petitioners 18, 50.8 (p. 11)

In other words, if the state properly convicted the right person, what is the state so afraid of?

It seems to me obvious that if a wrongly convicted person were to produce proof of his actual innocence, no state interest would be sufficient to justify his continued punitive detention. If such proof can be readily obtained without imposing a significant burden on the State, a refusal to provide access to such evidence is wholly unjustified. (p. 13)

It’s really is too bad that Stevens’ opinion did not carry the day. It’s also too bad that Osborne was the test case for this very important issue (Osborne is not what most might consider a sympathetic person; even if he was proven innocent of these charges, he faces other charges unrelated to this case). It doesn’t seem right that the Supreme Court would allow the state to withhold exculpatory evidence which would lead to the truth. Isn’t getting to the truth the point of our criminal justice system?

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6 Comments

  1. “Isn’t getting to the truth the point of our criminal justice system? ”

    You’d think it would be.

    Comment by Red — June 23, 2009 @ 11:52 am
  2. All three of the branches of gov’t have forgotten their duties.

    Comment by TerryP — June 23, 2009 @ 12:06 pm
  3. > Isn’t getting to the truth the point of our criminal justice system?

    In a word, no. Not anymore. The point of it is to protect and serve the state.

    Comment by tfr — June 24, 2009 @ 6:12 am
  4. I thought they took DNA samples as soon as you were arrested for a felony. Seems like that would be the perfect opportunity for the state to prove their case beyond a reasonable doubt.

    Comment by John222 — June 25, 2009 @ 4:48 am
  5. John:

    I can’t help but wonder if the DA has undisclosed reasons for keeping Osborne from testing the DNA sample (perhaps the DA knows Osborne did not commit the crime but does not want to be embarrassed for prosecuting the wrong person). I know that’s speculation on my part but I ask again, what is the DA so afraid of if they convicted the right person?

    Comment by Stephen Littau — June 25, 2009 @ 10:53 am
  6. [...] 5-4 on what should be very basic Constitutional principles (such was the case I wrote about in my most recent post). But once in awhile, SCOTUS does the unthinkable and actually upholds the Constitution. In Safford [...]

    Pingback by The Liberty Papers »Blog Archive » SCOTUS Returns to Sanity in School Strip Search Case — June 25, 2009 @ 10:55 am

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