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Supreme Court Says No Constitutional Right to DNA Testing for Convicts

By Javier Lavagnino, Esq. on June 18, 2009 | Last updated on October 28, 2019

It's not unusual to hear news stories about individuals who have languished in prison for years to be freed based on exonerating DNA evidence. Similarly, although they might not get as many headlines, the value of evidence from DNA tests for law enforcement and the prosecution in pursuing and establishing the guilt of a defendant is tough to dispute. In a close 5-4 decision today, the Supreme Court today announced that there is no constitutional right for someone who has been convicted of an offense to get access to the prosecution's evidence to perform DNA testing.

The case involved a violent sexual assault in Alaska, of which William Osborne was found guilty by a jury. After his conviction, Osborne asked for certain DNA evidence to be tested, but was shot down in courts at various times for various reasons, one big one being "that Osborne had confessed to some of his crimes in a 2004 application for parole" and in front of the parole board too. The end result was that Osborne ended up bring a lawsuit under civil rights laws claiming the constitution gave him a right to the DNA tests he wanted. He actually prevailed in the lower courts, which found that just like getting evidence from the prosecution before trial, Osborne had a constitutional right to obtain the same after conviction.

In its decision, the Court acknowledged the power and utility of DNA evidence from the perspective of both law enforcement (to prove guilt) and that of the defense (to get exonerated). However, in the eyes of the Court's majority the issue may have boiled down to one of procedure after someone has been convicted. With the consideration that someone has already been found guilty, the issue is best left to the legislatures of the states to resolve. Indeed, the Court pointed out that 46 states and the federal government already have laws dealing specifically with access to DNA evidence.

Unfortunately for Osborne, perhaps, Alaska is one of the states that does not yet have laws on the books dealing with evidence requested for DNA testing. However, the Court noted Alaska's courts have dealt with the issue and established parameters for dealing with such cases. In the context of asking for evidence after someone has already been convicted, the Court found that federal courts shouldn't mess with a state's procedures unless they are "fundamentally inadequate" to protect a convicted individual's rights. Alaska's procedures met this standard, and the Court indicated that DNA testing after conviction is an issue best left to lawmakers.

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