In a 5-4 ruling on June 18, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed a lower federal court ruling holding that the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment guarantees a convicted inmate the right to a DNA test on evidence that might prove his innocence. The defendant, William Osborne, had been convicted in 1994 of sexual assault in Alaska and sentenced to 26 years in prison. Alaska is one of only 4 states in the country that does not have a law providing for access to DNA evidence (the other 3 are Alabama, Massachusetts, and Oklahoma, though Alabama recently passed a law allowing limited access to DNA for death row inmates). Osborne was willing to pay for the test, which the state admitted might have conclusively proven his guilt or innocence.

While acknowledging the revolutionary importance of DNA testing in the criminal justice system, Chief Justice John Roberts, writing for the majority, said that it would be better to allow states to develop their own procedures for utilizing this forensic tool. He wrote: “Federal courts should not presume that state criminal procedures will be inadequate to deal with technological change. The criminal justice system has historically accommodated new types of evidence, and is a time-tested means of carrying out society’s interest in convicting the guilty while respecting individual rights. That system, like any human endeavor, cannot be perfect. DNA evidence shows that it has not been. But there is no basis for Osborne’s approach of assuming that because DNA has shown that these procedures are not flawless, DNA evidence must be treated as categorically outside the process, rather than within it.”

Justice John Paul Stevens wrote for 4 dissenters, stating that the liberty interest at stake for Osborne was more important and fundamental than the minor inconvenience for the state to allow the testing: “The DNA test Osborne seeks is a simple one, its cost modest, and its results uniquely precise. Yet for reasons the State has been unable or unwilling to articulate, it refuses to allow Osborne to test the evidence at his own expense and to thereby ascertain the truth once and for all.” He concludes: “On the record before us, there is no reason to deny access to the evidence and there are many reasons to provide it, not least of which is a fundamental concern in ensuring that justice has been done in this case.”

The case is District Attorney’s Office v. Osborne, No. 08-06 (U.S. June 18, 2009). (See A. Liptak, “Justices Reject Inmate Right to DNA Tests,” N.Y. Times, June 19, 2009). Two hundred and forty inmates have been exonerated through DNA testing, including 17 from death row. See Innocence and Supreme Court.