This week the Supreme Court ruled that prisoners do not have a constitutional right to obtain DNA testing that might prove their innocence if they have already been convicted. In a 5-4 decision, the court majority ruled that allowing prisoners the right to postconviction testing would undermine the finality of a conviction and the justice system’s accuracy. Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote:
[DNA has an] unparalleled ability both to exonerate the wrongly convicted and to identify the guilty… [but] to suddenly constitutionalize this area would short-circuit what looks to be a prompt and considered legislative response.
This was clearly a difficult decision for the justices as evidenced by the close final ruling. On one hand, justices voting in the majority like Samuel A. Alito Jr. argued that any defendant “could demand DNA testing in the hope that some happy accident — for example, degradation or contamination of the evidence — would provide the basis for seeking postconviction relief.” However, in a compelling rejoinder, dissenting justice John Paul Stevens wrote that states would have nothing to lose if defendants offered to pay for testing themselves.
While the Court’s decision came as a blow to prisoners’ rights advocates, it was a small one. According to the Innocence Project, an organization that works to obtain DNA testing for wrongfully convicted individuals, the impact of the decision is “limited… because most prisoners obtain access to DNA testing at the state level.” Chief Justice Roberts emphasized this reality in his opinion, writing that “federal courts may upset a State’s postconviction relief procedures only if they are fundamentally inadequate to vindicate the substantive rights provided.” In other words, since the defendant, William G. Osborne, was initially offered DNA testing but his lawyer turned it down for fear of further incriminating her client, Osborne’s due process rights were not violated, so the Court would not intervene on his behalf.
As of today, 46 states have laws that allow defendants access to DNA evidence. The Innocence Project reports that there have been 240 post-conviction DNA exonerations in the United States, 17 of whom were death row inmates. In 140 of those cases, DNA testing revealed the actual perpetrator.
Despite these startling figures in favor of postconviction DNA testing, many prosecutors are still trying to deny defendants access to it. According to the New York Times, in several states prosecutors are using eyewitness accounts and other evidence to keep defendants in jail, even when defendants offer to pay for the test themselves (which costs about $300-$400).
Arguably, DNA testing is a complicated issue that is not guaranteed to establish anyone’s innocence– for example, in cases where there are multiple suspects, test results may only show that there is an additional perpetrator instead of proving any particular suspect’s innocence. However, the cost of only a few hundred dollars is well worth it when you consider the price in years and quality of life paid by individuals who are wrongly convicted (the Innocence Project estimates that the average amount of time spent in prisons by exonerees is 12 years). If states are unwilling to pay for postconviction testing, there are numerous groups that would raise money for this relatively inexpensive test, not to mention defendants who use their own resources.
Click here to read about Charles Chatman, who was freed from prison after 26 years when DNA testing proved him innocent of rape.
Click here to learn more about the Innocence Project and its work.