On Thursday, June 18th, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that those convicted of a crime do not have the right to obtain DNA testing on evidence that could prove their innocence. The 5-4 decision involved the case of William Osborne, an Alaskan man convicted of assault, kidnapping, and sexual assault in 1993. Though the victim did identify Osborne as one of her two attackers, court documents also reveal that her identification was questionable. The victim’s eyesight was poor and the attack occurred at night when visibility was limited.
In 2001, Osborne sought DNA testing that could prove his innocence for the assault. He filed suit in federal court because he contended that the state of Alaska had no provision for post-conviction DNA testing. Although the Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision did not completely deny that there is a constitutional right to DNA testing, it found that Osborne’s constitutional rights were not violated. Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in his majority opinion that Osborne should have exhausted his avenues for appeal in the Alaska courts. Roberts added that defendants have no freestanding right to DNA testing under the Constitution’s Due Process Clause.
According to the Innocence Project, an organization that assists prisoners who might be proven innocent through DNA testing and who represents Osborn, to date there have been 240 people nationwide who have been exonerated through DNA testing. In all, 47 states and the District of Columbia have passed statutes granting access to post-conviction DNA testing, and a federal law granting access in federal cases was passed in 2004. Thursday’s ruling will not affect those laws. The three states without statutes granting post-conviction access to DNA testing are Alaska, Massachusetts and Oklahoma
Tennessee currently allows a defendant to obtain DNA testing of biological evidence during pre-trial discovery or during post-conviction proceedings. Strict pleading requirements, however, have the potential to preclude inmates from successfully obtaining post-conviction DNA testing. For example, the court will summarily dismiss the petition seeking post-conviction DNA testing if the petitioner failed to allege or satisfy a pleading requirement. Most significantly, the court is never required to hold a hearing on the merits of an inmate’s petition for DNA testing (The Tennessee Death Penalty Assessment Report, American Bar Association, March 2007).
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