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