Court To Examine Prisoners' Right To DNA Evidence The Supreme Court on Monday will hear a case that could determine whether a person imprisoned for a crime has a constitutional right to access physical evidence when new methods of analysis could exonerate him.
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Court To Examine Prisoners' Right To DNA Evidence

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Court To Examine Prisoners' Right To DNA Evidence

Law

Court To Examine Prisoners' Right To DNA Evidence

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, Host:

Today, the U.S. Supreme Court takes up a question central to the criminal justice system. It's a question about whether convicts have the right to access DNA evidence. Here's NPR's legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg.

NINA TOTENBERG: But David Rudovsky of the University of Pennsylvania Law School, summarizes the core of Osborne's argument.

DAVID RUDOVSKY: When you have evidence like DNA, which is the gold standard now, it's simply arbitrary in a constitutional sense to deny them the right to do the testing.

TOTENBERG: But the state of Alaska sees Osborne's appeal as an intrusion into states' rights, and an end run around the system. Alaska Assistant Attorney General Ken Rosenstein says the evidence against Osborne was overwhelming. Not only did his victim identify him and his co-defendant implicate him, but Osborne admitted guilt at his parole hearing and 14 years after the crime was released, only to be arrested again in connection with a violent home invasion for robbery.

KEN ROSENSTEIN: Well, Alaska's interest is in trying to separate claims by defendants who are simply gaming the system from those who merit a further expenditure of state resources. And although in this case Mr. Osborne has said that he's willing to pay for new testing, once a right is established, then the state is going to be on the hook for paying for testing for indigent defendants.

TOTENBERG: The state says essentially that Osborne has already had all the appeals he is due, and now his only recourse is to show his constitutional rights were violated at trial. Professor Rudovsky counters that not only have the time limits expired for filing such a claim, but it would be invalid anyway.

RUDOVSKY: What we're saying is not that the trial wasn't fair at the time, but that we now have evidence that everybody agrees could absolutely prove innocence.

TOTENBERG: Or guilt. That is the motivation cited by a group of victims from across the country who have filed a brief in the Supreme Court siding with Osborne. One of those victims is Jennifer Thompson Cannino, who carefully studied the face of the man who raped her, hoping to someday put him in prison, and who twice identified her assailant in court - wrongly. Eleven years after Ronald Cotton's second conviction, Cannino agreed to DNA testing that subsequently proved him innocent.

JENNIFER THOMPSON CANNINO: I 100 percent believed that we had gotten the right person. So, I wanted this thing to be done and over with. So, that was my first thought. The second thought is - wouldn't you want to know? I mean, wouldn't anybody want to know for sure that you had done the right thing, that you did have the right person?

TOTENBERG: And lastly, she says, if you have the wrong person, that means the real culprit is out on the loose, as in her case.

THOMPSON CANNINO: Where Bobby Poole was still on the streets and committed six other rapes that summer and six other lives were destroyed. We shouldn't have to go through court orders to have DNA tested. We should want to know.

TOTENBERG: Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.

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