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Posts Tagged ‘Supreme Court’

As the end of 2009 approaches, 1 in 100 is taking a look back at some noteworthy stories about prison from the past year that may not have crossed your radar.

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Several hundred women prisoners filed suit against the state of Michigan for failing to stop repeated sexual assaults against them by male prison guards. They’ve won at least $50 million in damages so far. Toni Bunton, above, bravely recounted the multiple sexual assaults she endured during her 17 years in prison to the Detroit Free Press in early 2009.

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On December 8, Kenneth Biros was the first person executed in the United States with a single-drug lethal injection, a process that is supposed to be less painful than executions carried out with the typical three-drug cocktail.  Ohio adopted the new method after the botched execution of Rommell Brown, whose execution was halted after Brown suffered for an unimaginable two hours. Kenneth Biros was the 52nd person executed in 2009; Carlton Gary is scheduled to be the 54th, and final, person executed this year.

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This year, the New York Times has run several interesting articles on various prison-related issues. Check out these pieces on flaws in the immigration detention systemchildren with parents in prisona reporter who covers executions in Texas, and an ex-convict trying to stay clean after prison.

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On May 20, Arizona inmate Marcia Powell died after being left in a cage in the desert sun for four hours. Powell had been given psychotropic medication that made her more susceptible to overheating, and nearby prisoners claimed that Powell was denied repeated claims for water. When Powell was pronounced brain dead at a hospital, prison officials could not find record of a legal guardian for Powell, even though she had one, resulting in Arizona Department of Corrections Director Charles Ryan authorizing termination of Powell’s life support without proper legal consent. Read more about this tragedy here and here.

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This year, the Supreme Court heard two cases arguing that sentencing juveniles to life in prison without parole (LWOP) is unconstitutional. Joe Sullivan, above,  and Terrance Graham were each sentenced to LWOP as juveniles for crimes that did not involve murder. Approximately 2,750 individuals in the United States are serving LWOP for crimes committed as juveniles; the United States is the only country in the world that has this penalty for individuals under the age of 18.

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Finally, a fantastic chart from Online Education demonstrating the social and financial costs of prisons. Click here to see the full-size version.

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Happy Holidays, and here’s hoping for a 2010 with fewer prisons.

-1 in 100

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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.

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