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Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Guest Blogger: Supreme Court Considers Right to DNA Testing

The Innocence Project , a long-time friend of AFJ, argues one of the most interesting cases of this Supreme Court term on Monday. At issue: whether a state has the legal authority to deny DNA testing to prisoners when such evidence exists, even if that evidence could potentially exonerate that prisoner.

By Matt Kelley
Online Communcations Manager
The Innocence Project

Next Monday, Innocence Project Co-Director Peter Neufeld will argue before the Supreme Court that prisoners have a constitutional right to DNA testing that can prove their innocence. And at a major public event this Thursday in Washington, D.C., people exonerated by DNA testing will be joined by legal experts who will discuss why the constitutional protections at question in this case are vital to preventing injustice and ensuring public safety.

In this case, District Attorney's Office of the Third Judicial District v. William G. Osborne, our client, William Osborne, sued the state of Alaska in federal court after being repeatedly denied the DNA testing that could prove his innocence. Although the Innocence Project would pay for DNA testing in the case and prosecutors have agreed that testing could definitively prove Osborne’s innocence or guilt, the state has argued that Osborne received a fair jury trial and can’t bring new evidence of innocence into federal court. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals heard the case and decided last year that Osborne had a right to post-conviction DNA testing under the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Alaska appealed to the Supreme Court.

Osborne was convicted along with another man, Dexter Jackson, of raping and assaulting a woman in 1993. At Osborne’s trial, the victim identified him as the second perpetrator, who had worn a blue condom during the rape. She said she was able to identify him despite her extremely poor vision and the fact that she was not wearing glasses or contacts. Police collected a blue condom from the crime scene and rudimentary DNA testing was conducted before Osborne’s trial. The results showed Osborne was a “possibly a source” of the fluids in the condom – along with 14 to 16 percent of all African Americans. He was convicted and sentenced to 26 years in prison.

Beginning in 2001, Osborne appealed his conviction in both state and federal courts, seeking more advanced DNA testing on the same condom used to convict him, arguing that new forms of testing were much more sensitive and could conclusively prove his innocence. The Innocence Project has represented him since 2003.

In the vast majority of our cases, prisoners are granted DNA testing through an agreement with prosecutors or under state post-conviction DNA access laws. Alaska is one of just six states without a DNA access law, and it is the only state with no known case of a prisoner receiving testing. The federal constitutional protection in this case is the only hope for William Osborne.

Thursday’s event, which is free and open to the public, will take place at 12:30 p.m. at Georgetown University Law School. More information is available here.

Oral arguments in District Attorney's Office of the Third Judicial District v. William G. Osborne are set for 10 a.m. on Monday, March 2. Visit The Innocence Project’s website for briefs from both sides – including amicus briefs on Osborne’s behalf from prosecutors, crime victims, exonerees and more.

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