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Supreme Court limits access to DNA evidence

Greg Stohr//June 19, 2009//

Supreme Court limits access to DNA evidence

Greg Stohr//June 19, 2009//

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The Constitution doesn’t guarantee access to DNA evidence for accused and convicted criminals, a divided U.S. Supreme Court said, ruling against a convicted Alaska rapist who sought to test DNA samples from a condom.

The justices, voting 5-4, overturned a ruling that said William G. Osborne had a right to the evidence beyond that afforded to him under Alaska law.

“Establishing a freestanding right to access DNA evidence for testing would force us to act as policymakers,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for the majority. He said federal courts “should not presume that state criminal procedures will be inadequate to deal with technological change.”

The case marked the Supreme Court’s second look at the increasingly common use of DNA evidence to exonerate convicted criminals. In 2005 the justices ordered a new hearing for a Tennessee man sentenced to death for murder, saying DNA evidence cast doubt on his guilt. Prosecutors recently dropped charges against the man.

DNA testing has exonerated more than 230 people across the country since 1989, according to the Innocence Project, which investigates cases and represents Osborne.

At least 46 states and the federal government have statutes that explicitly allow access to DNA evidence in some circumstances.

The case split the court along ideological lines. Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, Anthony Kennedy and Samuel Alito joined Roberts. Justices John Paul Stevens, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer and David Souter dissented.

Stevens wrote that “on the record before us, there is no reason to deny access to the evidence and there are many reasons to provide it, not the least of which is a fundamental concern in ensuring justice has been done in this case.”

Prosecutors say Osborne and a friend kidnapped a woman in 1993 and took her to a secluded spot where they raped her, beat her with an ax handle, shot her and left her for dead.

The woman survived and at trial identified Osborne as one of the perpetrators. Prosecutors also introduced several pieces of physical evidence, including a condom found near the crime scene.

A DNA testing method known as DQ-alpha indicated that Osborne was among the 14.7 to 16 percent of black men whose profile matched the semen sample. His trial lawyer didn’t seek a more precise testing method that was available at the time. Today, DNA testing can create a profile that is unique to each person.

Osborne was convicted and sentenced to 26 years in prison, with five years suspended. Alaska courts upheld the conviction and later rejected his separate request for retesting of the evidence.

Osborne then turned to the federal courts, invoking a provision known as Section 1983 to seek access to the semen and hair samples.

Roberts faulted Osborne for not availing himself of avenues afforded him under Alaska state law to challenge his conviction.

“We see nothing inadequate about the procedures Alaska has provided to vindicate its state right to post-conviction relief in general and nothing inadequate about how those procedures apply to those who seek access to DNA evidence,” the chief justice wrote.

A San Francisco-based federal appeals court said Osborne had a constitutional right to access because semen and hair samples had been used against him, he planned to use advanced testing methods and the government wouldn’t have to pay for the testing.

The case is District Attorney’s Office v. Osborne, 08-6.

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