Wednesday, June 24, 2009


Truth, justice, and the American way

Last week was a dark one for sensible, fair American justice:

Prisoners have no constitutional right to DNA testing that might prove their innocence, the Supreme Court ruled on Thursday in a 5-to-4 decision.

The court divided along familiar ideological lines, with the majority emphasizing that 46 states already have laws that allow at least some prisoners to gain access to DNA evidence.

The problems with this are clear:

  1. The constitutional argument goes to due process, and it seems obvious to me. I can’t understand how five Supreme Court Justices don’t see it that way.[1] It just makes sense to examine evidence that we weren’t able to examine — technologically — at the time of the trial.
  2. Many of the state laws are inadequate. For example, some only allow it for death-penalty cases, but will allow someone to die in prison rather than review the DNA. And in any case, prosecutors oppose the petitions, not wanting to risk having their convictions overturned.
  3. No argument about how much trouble it might be will win me over, when we’re talking about years of someone’s life spent in prison for not knowing. No argument of “convicted in a fair trial” can counter the unfairness of a false conviction. If we don’t put the priority on a person’s life, what are we?

Such is the legacy of the Bushes, père et fils, and Ronald Reagan; this is where they’ve left us.

[1] Actually, I can, when I consider who four of those five are. I’m disappointed that Justice Kennedy joined them.


Ray said...

It isn't as though there are any particularly esoteric or convoluted points of law or process that can be claimed. It seems to me self-evident that if there is a possibility that a DNA test could prove a person's innocence, then that test should be automatically available. No questions asked. But since this country is now so far from being the 'land of the free', I suppose it really isn't that surprising.

Anonymous said...

I wholeheartedly agree that it would be asinine to hold that prisoners can't access DNA if it could prove their innocence *and* it hadn't been possible to do a DNA test originally.

But did you read the opinion on the specific facts of the case?

I honestly thought the majority position was well reasoned: in this specific case DNA testing *was* available during the initial trial and the defense attorney made a strategic choice not to perform a test because she thought it would most likely prove the defendant's guilt.

The holding was based on the fact that the defendant was bypassing Alaska state law, which does have provisions that could be used to compel the DNA evidence, and that if you (or your lawyer) made a strategic choice not to do a DNA test during the trial, you can't come running afterwards and start tying up court resources because you changed your mind.

There's a maxim stating exceptional or extreme cases make bad law. This is probably such a case, but it really was a bad vehicle to get a constitutional right to ex post facto DNA testing recognized. The defendant is singularly unsympathatic: there is plenty of seemingly reliable non-DNA evidence, and it was a strategic choice not to do DNA testing in the first place.

Barry Leiba said...

Well, as I say, I don't care terribly much about what rules were bent or what "strategic" decisions were made, and I'd think the same about any sort of evidence. I have little use for the "You didn't bring that up before, so it's too late now, no tag-backs!" approach to justice. Exculpatory evidence should be valid at any time, and refusal to review evidence strikes me as no more than a desire not to be shown up.

That said, I do agree with most of your last paragraph: this was not a good case to rely on, the defendant is hard to like, and it's likely that the DNA evidence would not have cleared him anyway.

I hope we can revisit this with a stronger case. I wish we didn't have to, though, and that's really my point.