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Justices Find Convicts Have No Right to DNA Testing

June 18, 2009 at 12:00 AM EDT
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The Supreme Court said Thursday that convicts have no constitutional right to test DNA evidence in hopes of proving their innocence long after they were found guilty. Marcia Coyle of the National Law Journal discusses the impact of the decision.

RAY SUAREZ: The justices said in a 5-4 decision that convicted criminals do not have a constitutional right to access evidence for DNA testing, even if that testing might conclusively prove guilt or innocence.

It was one of several rulings handed down by the high court today. Here to tell us more, as always, is Marcia Coyle of the National Law Journal.

And we’ll begin with the DNA case, Marcia.

MARCIA COYLE, National Law Journal: OK.

RAY SUAREZ: What was William Osborne demanding from the state of Alaska?

MARCIA COYLE: Well, Osborne contends that he is actually innocent of the crime of a very brutal sexual assault of a prostitute in Alaska. He wanted Alaska to give him the most recent DNA technology to test some of the evidence that was left behind at the scene of that crime to show that he is innocent.

RAY SUAREZ: So the rape in question happened in 1993 and Osborne…

MARCIA COYLE: Long time ago.

RAY SUAREZ: … is saying that there are much better tests today, right?

MARCIA COYLE: Yes, much better than when he went to trial.

RAY SUAREZ: And Alaska didn’t want to give him that further test, right?

MARCIA COYLE: That’s correct. Well, Alaska felt he didn’t qualify under its procedures, under its post-conviction law for that test.

Giving power to state courts

RAY SUAREZ: So who was in the majority? And what reasons did they give for their ruling?

MARCIA COYLE: It was very striking, Ray, how differently the chief justice, Chief Justice Roberts, who wrote the majority opinion, and the main dissent by Justice John Paul Stevens, how differently they view the role of the courts in this area.

Chief Justice Roberts made basically three points. First, he said, states right now are actively dealing with the issue of DNA technology in the criminal justice system. He noted that there are 47 states in the federal government which have statutes recognizing some type of right of access to evidence for DNA testing. If the court constitutionalized this area, he said, it would short-circuit what seemed to be prompt and thoughtful responses to this issue.

He also said recognizing a free-standing constitutional right would put the court in the place of policymaker, because it would have to deal with a whole range of issues that would flow from that. For example, is there a constitutional obligation to preserve forensic evidence to be tested later? And if there is, how long do you have to preserve it? Should different types of evidence be treated differently?

He said, at the end of the day, you shouldn't presume that federal courts can answer those questions better than state legislatures.

Reminiscent of famous Gideon case

RAY SUAREZ: So for the chief justice, this was more of a state's rights versus federal oversight question than a due process or guilt or innocence question?

MARCIA COYLE: It was a due process issue, because he had to deal with whether the right that was being sought here was grounded in due process. And he felt that there was no long history of a right like this.

And I think he viewed it more as, who has the proper role here, not so much state's rights, but is it the courts or elected officials who should be making these judgments?

RAY SUAREZ: And what did Justice Stevens have to say?

MARCIA COYLE: Justice Stevens said, the fact that nearly all the states have recognized some type of right of access to this evidence makes it more appropriate, not less appropriate, to recognize a limited federal right of access for individuals who are unfairly denied access by, say, the state courts or state law.

He said that the chief justice's arguments about the courts becoming policymakers was reminiscent of what the court faced when it considered whether to recognize a right to counsel in its now famous Gideon decision or what we know now as the Miranda rights.

He said that recognizing a right here would not short-circuit states' efforts to create procedures on how to obtain access. It would only ensure that those procedures were not arbitrary.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, Marcia, Alaska is one of only a few states that don't expressly give convicts the right to access this kind of information. Does this relieve states of the obligation to do so, this ruling?

MARCIA COYLE: Well, I think the states themselves have already got the laws on the books, so they are under no constitutional obligation to keep those laws on the books, but I think this is a trend that has taken root very firmly.

Just look at the numbers. There are only three states that don't have statutes. So you might think, on the face of it, it has a limited impact, but those state laws vary considerably. Some states only allow access to people on death row. There's one state -- I believe Pennsylvania -- that only allows access to prisoners who've been convicted prior to 1995.

So there's a lot of variety. And for groups such as Innocence Project, it means they're going to have to work harder to improve those state laws and also to tackle the three states that don't have any laws.

Age discrimination ruling

RAY SUAREZ: Well, in the legal writing around this case, it was pointed out again and again that, while this was an important question, Osborne himself wasn't a very attractive petitioner and that this didn't make a great test case. Now, if you're one of those people fighting to get out of prison, maintaining that you're innocent, was this a bad day for you?

MARCIA COYLE: Well, yes, I think so. Certainly, if the court had recognized a federal constitutional right, even a limited right, as was sought here, then it would have firmly entrenched the ability of a defendant to seek access to this type of evidence. So, yes, in that context, it is a bad day.

RAY SUAREZ: The high court also ruled today in an age discrimination case. What did it say?

MARCIA COYLE: In some work discrimination cases, there is more than just the factor that's prohibited by law, for example, age, sex, race, gender. An employer is not to discriminate on the basis of those factors.

Sometimes other factors motivate an employer, as well. And the court in the past has said that an employee who brings a discrimination case in that type of situation can establish discrimination by showing that the prohibited factor -- here, age -- was a motivating factor. And then the burden shifts to the employer to prove that he or she would have done the same thing regardless of that factor.

But today, the Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision, said, no, employees under the age discrimination act have to prove that age was the decisive factor. And the burden never shifts to the employer; it always stays with the employee.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, in the real workplace, there are a lot of reasons why people get moved on or laid off or fired. This puts a very heavy burden on the employee, him or herself, then, doesn't it?

MARCIA COYLE: Yes, the opinion, the decision will make it harder to prove these types of cases under the age act. The decision was written by Justice Thomas, and he said that the text of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act did not support this type of burden-shifting.

Many major cases outstanding

RAY SUAREZ: We're getting close to the end here for the summer recess. Are there a couple of big cases that we're still waiting for rulings on?

MARCIA COYLE: Absolutely. There are, I believe, 10 cases still outstanding. Two are major race-related cases, one challenging what is sort of the core of the Voting Rights Act, and another challenging an affirmative action program, -type program, testing in New Haven, Connecticut, involving the firefighters there, and also, if our viewers will remember, a case involving the strip search of a middle-school student.

RAY SUAREZ: Marcia Coyle, thanks for joining us.

MARCIA COYLE: My pleasure, Ray.