From fingerprints to arsenic tests to DNA, European scientists and European courts have led the way for centuries. And in 2009, that continues to be true.
In June 2009, the Supreme Court of the United States, on a 5-4 vote, refused to help an inmate whose access to DNA evidence was blocked by the state. The Supreme Court refused to acknowledge a right to DNA testing. The opinion is an embarrassment to me as an American.
Even though the Chief Justice acknowledged, right up front, that DNA evidence "has an unparallelled ability both to exonerate the wrongfully convicted and to identify the guilty," the Supreme Court said it is comfortable leaving it up to individual states to decide how much access to grant for DNA testing. And if they don't allow it, well, that's too bad.
The stated reasons for this decision were federalism -- the idea that each state is a nation unto itself -- and "finality" -- the idea that judges are too lazy to hear umpteen appeals. How deplorable of a court to cite "finality" -- to my way of thinking, a case isn't "final" until the execution is held or the sentence served.
But in the opinion filed by Justice Alito, you see a hint of the truth. In reality, the justices just don't think all that much of DNA evidence. Justice Alito (page 31), claims that DNA "often fails" to provide clear proof. He quotes resources on the difficulty of collecting crime scene evidence. He doesn't believe in the science.
The bottom line is, until we get a Supreme Court with faith in science in America, a convicted man can have access to potentially exculpatory DNA evidence depending on where he lives.
In Kentucky, only death row inmates are permitted access to DNA evidence. So if you're serving forty years for rape, tough luck.
In Alaska, a prosecutor can block your request for exonerating DNA testing for no logical reason. Tough luck, folks.
In America, we ought to have more respect for DNA evidence. I can't help but wonder if the United States Supreme Court would think more of DNA evidence if the science had been developed in the United States to begin with. Meanwhile, my inner flag dips as I hope that other countries and other justice systems continue to look elsewhere for leadership in forensic science.