Prosecutors and defense attorneys routinely use DNA evidence at trial to prove whether a defendant committed a crime (or was at the scene of a crime), but DNA analysis can also be used after a trial has already resulted in a conviction. In fact, requests for post-conviction DNA analysis have become so prevalent that the federal government and every state have passed laws governing when and how a convict can request to revisit a conviction based on new DNA evidence.
The following is an overview of DNA analysis used after a conviction, including the main categories of such cases and the standards used for this type of analysis.
DNA Analysis After a Conviction: The Basics
The use of post-conviction DNA analysis has already resulted in the release of many people who were incorrectly convicted of crimes. The Innocence Project, a group dedicated to the use of post-conviction DNA analysis to free the wrongfully convicted, has counted 266 instances in the United States where post-conviction analysis has resulted in the exoneration and release of prisoners.
Post-conviction DNA analysis is typically available in cases where testing wasnt available at the time of the original trial or when technology has advanced to a level that offers a more accurate test than the one used previously. This analysis can result in the release of a convicted prisoner in two ways:
- First, the DNA evidence could prove conclusively that the prisoner didn't commit the crime in question;
- Second, the DNA evidence could raise a reasonable doubt that justifies overturning the conviction without conclusively proving innocence.
Categories of Post-Conviction DNA Analysis Cases
According to the National Institute of Justices DNA Initiative, there are five broad categories that describe post-conviction DNA cases:
- Cases where both the prosecution and the defense agree that a post-conviction DNA analysis should occur. In this category, the two sides can probably work together without the need for judicial intervention.
- Cases where testing wont prove innocence on its own, but it could help secure a new trial, a pardon, a commutation or executive clemency. Also cases where the prosecution and defense cannot agree on how useful testing will be. For this category, the sides will probably require the assistance of a judicial officer to resolve their differences.
- Cases where testing will not produce conclusive results.
- Cases where testing cannot proceed because of lost, damaged or destroyed biological samples, or in instances where investigators did not collect biological samples at all.
- Cases where the prisoner makes a false claim of innocence and both the prosecutor and defense attorney agree that testing should not occur.
Cases that fall into the second category require judges to examine the details of the case and determine whether the situation meets the requirements of the applicable statute.
Standards for Post-Conviction DNA Analysis Cases
State laws set out the standard for DNA analysis requests after conviction. The federal government also has a statute that covers DNA testing for inmates: 18 U.S.C. Section 3600. Judges use the standards contained in these laws to determine whether the evidence will have enough of an impact on the previous determination of guilt to justify reopening proceedings in the case.
The specific standard that an applicant must meet varies from state to state. In general, most states require a showing of conclusive proof that the new DNA evidence would have altered the result of the first trial, but the exact standard will differ among jurisdictions. The differences between the standards are often subtle, but can have a huge impact on the outcome of an application to reopen a case for genetic analysis.
Applicants must typically meet other requirements as well. Most often, there is some sort of time limit on how soon the inmate must apply for testing after the discovery of new evidence. Some states accept new evidence for some time after it's uncovered, but other states are fairly strict and require that inmates apply for DNA analysis very quickly after they learn of new evidence.
The Supreme Court and Post-Conviction DNA Analysis
The United States Supreme Court first addressed the issue of post-conviction DNA analysis in the case of District Attorneys Office v. Osborne. In that case, William Osborne, a man convicted of rape and attempted murder, claimed a constitutional right to subject DNA samples collected in the case to newer, more accurate DNA analysis. The results of the new test, he claimed, would help him to prove his actual innocence of the crime.
The Court denied the inmate the opportunity to test the DNA samples. A divided Court ruled, among other things, that there is no constitutional right to post-conviction DNA analysis. Chief Justice John Roberts, writing for the majority, argued that the recognition of a constitutional right would undermine the state laws that have already gone into effect.
Compensation for the Wrongfully Convicted
The majority of states and the District of Columbia have laws that allow for the compensation of wrongfully convicted inmates. These laws provide compensation, paid for by the state, to prisoners who've been freed as a result of post-conviction DNA analysis.
DNA evidence is a powerful tool, not only during trial, but after a conviction as well. While the U.S. Supreme Court has declined to recognize a constitutional right to post-conviction DNA analysis, the laws of all but two states allow inmates to test DNA samples if the situation warrants it. A slim majority of states also provide compensation for the wrongfully convicted.
Get Help With Your Exoneration Efforts: Contact an Attorney
DNA evidence holds the potential to exonerate you or, at a minimum, to raise reasonable doubt in your case either before or after a conviction. However, if your case involves DNA evidence, you need an attorney with experience handling these kinds of cases. Whether making an appeal or facing trial, you can speak with an expert criminal defense attorney in your area today.