Supreme Court and Post-Conviction DNA Testing

There was disappointing news yesterday for supporters of domestic criminal system reform efforts when the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that convicts do not have a right under the Constitution to obtain DNA testing to try to prove their innocence after being found guilty. The court ruled against William G. Osborne, a convicted rapist from Alaska who was seeking access to post-conviction DNA in order to prove his innocence.

Although a very disheartening decision, it’s not necessarily as bad as you would think. According to ardent supporters of DNA testing, the ruling doesn’t automatically mean that prisoners that are innocence will be denied access to DNA testing. This case will actually have a very limited impact. As The Innocence Project Co-Director Peter Nuefeld puts it, “While this is a deeply flawed and disappointing decision, we have always said this case would have a very limited impact. In the vast majority of cases, prisoners are granted DNA testing under state law or because prosecutors consent to testing without a court order.”

Since 1992, 238 people in the US, some of whom were on death row, have been exonerated of crimes through DNA testing. According to the Innocence Project, which is affiliated with the Cardozo School of Law, Congress and 47 states have passed legislation granting DNA testing in at least some cases. In less than a dozen of these 238 cases were the convicted exonerated through DNA testing received through the federal court.

This decision is still extremely frustrating because the small number of people that are impacted by this decision will no doubt suffer greatly. For Osborne, his best hope is for legislators in his state of Alaska to pass a law granting post-conviction DNA testing. Alaska is one of six states without a law granting post-conviction DNA testing. No matter the circumstance, no one should suffer in prison because they were prevented from proving their innocence.

To read the press release from The Innocence Project on yesterday’s ruling and its expected impact, click here.