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Monday, March 2, 2009

Supreme Court Hears DNA Testing Case

This morning the Supreme Court heard arguments in District Attorney’s Office v. Osborne, a case that may determine if prisoners have a constitutional right to DNA testing that could exonerate them.

As we noted earlier on Justice Watch, William Osborne was convicted of rape in Alaska, but asked the court to test fluids found in a condom at the crime scene that he claims would prove his innocence. Alaskan officials denied his request, and the case has now made it to the Supreme Court.

Alaska is one of only six states that do not have laws ensuring access to DNA testing. The state’s courts argue that they have created a framework for prisoners to request access to DNA evidence, but that Mr. Osborne did not meet the requirements. This morning, the Supreme Court justices hearing his case seemed inclined to agree.

According to the Associated Press, the justices seemed stuck on the issue of whether a prisoner must be required to pronounce his innocence -- under penalty of perjury -- before such tests would be ordered. This theoretically would weed out any test requests from guilty prisoners, but as Justice John Paul Stevens noted, even people who had confessed to crimes have later been exonerated by DNA testing.

Mr. Osborne had admitted during parole proceedings that he had committed the rape. Of course, continuing to deny one’s guilt is not always the best way to earn parole. Justice Stevens, after mentioning past examples of people who had confessed and later been exonerated asked, “How do we know this isn’t one of those cases?”

Peter Neufeld of the Innocence Project, who is representing Mr. Osborne, pointed out that prisoners pay for their own tests, stating “All they’re getting is a darn test. If it shows they committed the crime, they get nothing.” A decision in the case is expected sometime this spring.

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