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Supreme Court Denies Prisoner Right to DNA Evidence

In yet another 5-4 ruling Thursday, the Supreme Court denied a man imprisoned for a rape and attempted murder he says he didn’t commit the right to the DNA evidence that would prove his guilt or innocence.

Concluding that this is a matter for state legislatures, not the federal courts, to decide, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in District Attorney’s Office v. Osborne that the Supreme Court is “reluctant to enlist the Federal Judiciary in creating a new constitutional code of rules for handling DNA.”

Even as the majority acknowledged the critical new role that DNA evidence can play in the criminal justice system — the test “has exonerated wrongly convicted people, and has confirmed the convictions of many others” — the court ruled that it’s still not, as the imprisoned defendant had claimed, a matter of due process rights guaranteed under the U.S. Constitution, but rather a procedural matter for states to decide how they want to handle the evidence and interpret their statutes regarding post-conviction relief.

In a scathing dissent, Justice John Paul Stevens — joined (again) by Justices Ginsburg, Breyer and Souter (in part) — wrote that the majority had misinterpreted both the facts and the law.

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,” Stevens wrote. Noting that “nearly all the States have now recognized some postconviction right to DNA evidence,” and that prosecutors are required to turn over exculpatory evidence, it is “appropriate to recognize a limited federal right to such evidence in cases where litigants are unfairly barred from obtaining relief in state court.” Given that the evidence would absolutely prove Osborne’s guilt or innocence, Stevens wrote, Alaska’s refusal to provide it was “arbitrary” and a denial of the federal constitutional right of due process.

Because the Supreme Court had long similarly refused to acknowledge a right to counsel for the indigent in criminal cases by saying it was a matter of state procedure rather than due process, the dissenting justices argued that it was time to recognize a limited right to DNA evidence.

“Osborne has demonstrated a constitutionally protected right to due process which the State of Alaska thus far has not vindicated and which this Court is both empowered and obliged to safeguard. 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 inthis case.”

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