Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Osborne: A case we're watching

Arguments are set to begin in early March in the case of District Attorney’s Office for the Third Judicial District v. Osborne. This summary of the case comes from SCOTUSblog. (That site and its partner wiki, as always, are great sources of info, should you wish to read up more on the case.)

On March 2, 2009, in No. 08-6, District Attorney’s Office for the Third Judicial District v. Osborne, the Supreme Court will hear argument in a case that involves the relationship between the most cutting-edge DNA technology, capable of establishing guilt or innocence with unprecedented conclusiveness, and the longstanding constitutional right for the accused to receive fair process.

Fourteen years after his conviction for kidnapping and sexual assault, William Osborne seeks access to sperm deposited inside a condom found at the scene of the crime. At his own expense, he wishes to subject this evidence to sophisticated DNA testing, unavailable at the time of his trial, which he believes will definitively prove his innocence. During post-conviction proceedings, the state of Alaska denied Osborne access to this DNA evidence because of the other factors demonstrating his guilt. Osborne then brought a suit in federal court claiming that Alaska’s refusal to allow access to the evidence violated his due process rights under the Fourteenth Amendment. The Ninth Circuit agreed.

The Supreme Court must now address two decisions by the Ninth Circuit that have potentially far-reaching implications. First, the Ninth Circuit held that Osborne can bring a lawsuit against Alaska to access evidence instead of seeking a writ of habeas corpus, the procedural device afforded prisoners for invalidating a state conviction in federal court. The Ninth Circuit also held that the due process clause guarantees Osborne the right to access the DNA evidence so that he may ultimately bring a habeas corpus action to challenge his conviction.

In holding that Osborne has a right to access the DNA evidence, the Ninth Circuit also assumed without deciding a question that the Supreme Court has carefully avoided in the past ─ whether a prisoner with access to this evidence can then overturn his conviction by asserting a “freestanding innocence” claim, based solely on the ground that he is not guilty rather than on any trial defects. If the Supreme Court overturns the Ninth Circuit’s decision, it may have to grapple with this important question.
The Innocence Project in New York excerpts this article from McClatchy, in which Peter Neufeld exhibits a genuine shock at the prosecution's stubbornness.
"Most prosecutors want to do justice and they want to get to the truth," Even if they believe deep down that a defendant is guilty, many also reason, "Fine, I'll give them the test. What's the downside? It's just a test - it's not letting them out of prison."
It should be obvious why our organization is watching this case very carefully. We are lucky in Florida, in the sense that a particular rule of the State's criminal procedure establishes the right for an inmate to file a motion to seek DNA testing. Florida is one of over 40 states that make such an allowance for people who have already been convicted of a crime. Alaska is one of the remaining handful of states that make no explicit allowance. In addition, Alaska has never granted an inmate post-conviction DNA testing.

We hope the Supreme Court can recognize what is at stake in this case. Many people were convicted and sentenced before the revolutionary advent of DNA testing. So far, over 230 people nationwide have been exonerated by testing biological evidence that remained since they were convicted. It is imperative that the Supreme Court recognize the gravity of those exonerations and the evidence they provide for the fallibility of our legal system, and extend the right to post-conviction DNA testing to all inmates in America.

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