High Court Says Convicts Lack Right To DNA Testing

The Supreme Court has ruled that the U.S. Constitution does not give convicts the right to test DNA evidence from their cases. Forty-seven states have passed laws establishing rules on when the government has to give convicts access to such evidence.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Most states in the U.S. have laws that allow convicted criminals in some circumstances access to DNA testing of the evidence used against them after they've been convicted. Three states do not. Yesterday, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled there is no right to this testing under the Constitution. There's no right to it even when new and more certain testing methods have been developed since the trial.

The 5-4 high court ruling comes despite 240 post-conviction exonerations in recent years as the result of DNA testing. NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg reports.

NINA TOTENBERG: The court's ruling came in the case of William Osborne, convicted in Alaska 16 years ago of a brutal rape and assault. The rudimentary DNA testing used in the case did link Osborne to the crime, but it wasn't much better than blood typing and would have linked millions of others to the crime, too.

In the years since then, a new DNA testing procedure has revolutionized the field, making it easier to test small amounts of DNA with near iron-clad certainty. So more than a decade after his trial, Osborne, hoping to prove his innocence, sought access to the condom and pubic hairs from the crime scene so that the new DNA tests could be conducted. And he said he would pay for the test himself.

Alaska, however, is one of three states in the country that still has not enacted legislation authorizing post-conviction DNA testing. And it's the only state whose courts have never ordered such post-conviction testing. So Osborne appealed, asserting that to deny him access to DNA testing that could prove his innocence is to deny him his constitutional right to due process of law.

Yesterday, the Supreme Court by a 5-4 vote disagreed. Writing for the majority, Chief Justice John Roberts said there's no constitutional right to DNA testing, and that it's up to the states and the federal government to draw lines on when such testing should be permissible.

Nebraska Attorney General Jon Bruning, president of the National Association of State Attorneys General, hailed the decision as necessary to protect the states from unwarranted expense.

Attorney General JON BRUNING (Nebraska; President, National Association of State Attorneys General): 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, agrees - sort of.

Mr. SCOTT BURNS (Executive Director, National District Attorneys Association): The National District Attorneys Association believes that these decisions should be left to the prosecutors. But, you know, in the same breath, our real job is to do justice. And with all due respect to the prosecutors in Alaska, I think that if guilt and innocence is on the line and a forensic test can acquit or confirm a jury verdict, it ought to be done.

TOTENBERG: Yesterday's ruling will have a limited effect, since 47 states and the federal government do authorize post-conviction DNA testing. Some of the state laws, however, are themselves very circumscribed. Kentucky, for example, limits post-conviction testing to death penalty cases. Other states bar DNA testing in cases where the defendant confessed.

Peter Neufeld of the Innocence Project says these limits make little sense, since many of the 240 people who've been exonerated using DNA testing once looked very guilty.

Mr. PETER NEUFELD (Innocence Project): All 240 people were exonerated with post-conviction DNA evidence, despite the fact that in some of the cases there were three, four and five eyewitnesses, despite the fact that there were confessions and jailhouse informants and all kinds of evidence. The DNA evidence trumped all that other evidence and the dispositively proved their innocence to the satisfaction of prosecutors, judges and the public at large.

TOTENBERG: Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Court Rules Convicts Have No Right To DNA Tests

The Supreme Court ruled Thursday that people convicted of a crime do not have the right to obtain DNA testing on evidence to prove their innocence.

The 5-4 decision involved the case of William Osborne, an Alaska man convicted of assault, kidnapping and sexual assault in 1993. Although the victim identified Osborne as one of her two attackers, court documents said her identification was tentative because her eyesight was poor and the assault happened at night.

In 2001, Osborne asked the state court for access to the evidence to obtain advanced DNA testing that was not available during the time of his original trial. Ultimately, he filed suit in federal court, saying the state of Alaska had no provision for post-conviction DNA testing.

Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in his majority opinion that Osborne should have exhausted his avenues for appeal in the Alaska courts. In addition, he said defendants have no freestanding right to DNA testing under the Constitution's Due Process Clause.

Roberts acknowledged that DNA evidence will lead to big changes in the criminal justice system. "The question is whether further change will primarily be made by legislative revision and judicial interpretation of the existing system, or whether the federal judiciary must leap ahead — revising (or even discarding) the system by creating a new constitutional right and taking over responsibility for refining it," he wrote.

He also admonished federal courts to give states a chance to deal with technological innovations. "Federal courts should not presume that state criminal procedures will be inadequate to deal with technological change."

Alaska is one of the few states that does not have laws providing for post-conviction DNA tests. According to the Innocence Project, which re-examines cases involving DNA evidence, no Alaska inmate is known to have been granted access to DNA testing by the legal system.

Peter Neufeld, co-director of the Innocence Project, said the court's decision was disappointing because it "erroneously asserts that Alaska has an adequate process for post-conviction DNA testing." And while the ruling will have limited impact because most states already grant access to testing, he said it's a devastating blow for prisoners in states with no such laws.

"Most people who need DNA testing to prove their innocence will not be affected by today's ruling, but the small number of people who are impacted may suffer greatly. As a result of this decision, more innocent people will languish in prison and some may die in prison because they were prevented from proving their innocence," Neufeld said.

In all, 47 states, the District of Columbia and Congress have laws granting access to post-conviction DNA testing, according to the group. A law granting access in federal cases was approved in 2004.

Neufeld said the group is more committed than ever to getting DNA-testing laws passed in Alaska, Massachusetts and Oklahoma. It also aims to improve laws in Alabama and Kentucky, where testing is only allowed in capital cases, and in Pennsylvania, which allows it only for people convicted before 1995.

Nationwide, 240 people have been exonerated through DNA testing, according to the Innocence Project. They served an average of 12 years in prison and, in some cases, had pleaded guilty to crimes they didn't commit.

In other Supreme Court rulings Thursday:

• The court threw out an appeals court ruling that would have allowed prosecutors to retry F. Scott Yeager, a former executive of Enron Corp.'s broadband unit. Yeager was acquitted of some charges in a 125-count indictment in a 2005 trial. The jury couldn't reach a decision on the other charges.

Yeager filed suit when prosecutors sought to retry him. Defense attorneys contended that the government could not retry Yeager based on the Constitution's double jeopardy provision, which prevents defendants from being tried twice for the same crime.

In a 6-3 decision, the justices decided that retrying Yeager on charges related to the same set of facts would put him in double jeopardy because he was acquitted on some charges during his trial.

• The justices said a lower court erred when it overturned the 2004 approval of a settlement agreement with insurance giant Travelers Companies Inc. involving asbestos-related lawsuits. The settlement also barred new lawsuits against Travelers related to its coverage of asbestos miner and manufacturer Johns Manville Corp. from 1946 to 1976.

"So long as respondents or those in privity with them were parties to the Manville bankruptcy proceedings, and were given a fair chance to challenge the bankruptcy court's subject matter jurisdiction, they cannot challenge it now by resisting enforcement of the 1986 orders," Justice David Souter wrote for the 7-2 majority.

The court did not decide whether all of the people who want to challenge the Travelers settlement are bound by the Manville Trust agreement.

Exposure to asbestos has been found to increase the risk of some types of cancers.

• The court ruled 5-4 that an employee — not the employer — has to prove age was the key factor in an employment decision to successfully show age discrimination, even if there is some evidence that age played a role.

NPR wire services contributed to this report

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.