Bad news in the Osborne case. The court found no reason to “constitutionalize” post-conviction access to biological evidence for DNA testing. From SCOTUSblog:
Splitting 5-4, the Supreme Court ruled Thursday that an individual whose criminal conviction has become final does not have a constitutional right to gain access to evidence so that it can be subjected to DNA testing to try to prove innocence. This was one of four final rulings the Court issued Thursday, leaving ten remaining. The next release of opinions is expected on Monday.
Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr., writing for the majority in District Attorney’s Office v. Osborne (08-6), noted that DNA testing provides “an unparalleled ability” to prove innocence or guilt, but its availability “cannot mean that every criminal conviction, or even every criminal conviction involving biological evidence, is suddenly in doubt.”
The task of writing rules to control access to DNA evidence “belongs primarily” to the legislature, the Chief Justice wrote. Pursuing a “freestanding and far-reaching constitutional right of access” to DNA evidence through a civil rights lawsuit, Roberts wrote, would “short-circuit” efforts now being made by the federal government and many states to develop tools on access to such evidence. “There is no reason to constitutionalize” access through the courts when elected officials are making “a prompt and considered” response to the DNA phenomenon, the opinion concluded.
While the decision appeared to be focused on whether such a right of access exists after a criminal conviction has become final, when states presumably have more authority to shape their responses to new challenges to earlier convictions, the language used by the Court majority made it appear that the sweep of the decision may turn out to be considerably broader.
Two of the Justices who joined the majority said in a separate opinion that they would have gone further in rejecting the DNA access claim in the case, asserting that such claims should not be pursued in a civil rights lawsuit, but through a habeas plea — but then only after first trying the challenge in state court. (The Chief Justice’s opinion assumed, without deciding, that the case had been properly pursued as a civil rights claim.)
In an opinion written by Justice Samuel A. Alito, Jr., he and Justice Anthony M. Kennedy also said that, if a defense lawyer fails to seek DNA testing during trial, and does so for tactical reasons, there is no constitutional right to seek access following conviction. Justice Clarence Thomas joined them on that second point, but not on the need to pursue the habeas route.
We will follow with more analysis in the coming days.