Friday, July 10, 2009

The Supreme Court and DNA: I'm Embarrassed for Them

by Laura James

The United States has always been woefully behind when it comes to forensic science. The forensic techniques so critical to criminal justice today were all discovered in Europe.

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.


Lee said...

In reference to the injustice of allowing DNA testing, based upon location and/or opinion of officials....

I find it completely deplorable for several reasons. The first one being: if two strangers are walking down a street, and one identifies the other as a rapist, DNA evidence could either confirm or excuse guilt, due to the sheer composition of the relationship.
The second being that it should be a right of an American, to be provided DNA testing as evidence of guilt or innocence, just as it is a right of an American, to recieve a judgement of guilt or innocence, based upon circumstantial evidence and opinions. Lastly, a raped individual, who has picked a perpetrator out of a book of pictures; then a line-up, and then through a court proceeding, including a sentence of guilt, should also have the right to know, without a doubt, that they accused the right individual. If they were mistaken, because DNA wasn't allowed, and that victim later found DNA to disprove their allegation, then not only has that individual been raped, but they also have raped another. It is a crime in itself to all involved.
* Good article. I especially liked your point about DNA and death row inmates and DNA and other inmates....craziness!!!!!

Anonymous said...

This burns me up too. Shame on them. This kind of ruling was just like they were scared kids. Not looking out for our rights at all.

Leah said...

It doesn't make any sense that for years we didn't have DNA technology and now that we do, criminals don't have equal access to it. Maybe we need to stop appointing lawyers to the Supreme Court. There are plenty of qualified individuals with good common sense to serve in this capacity.

Kathryn Casey said...

Great post, Laura. Sad situation.

Ignatius said...

Well, I have to say, the jurists of the Supreme Court must have their reasons. Of course, some past SCOTUS rulings have been quite shameful. But... but, I'm not totally sure their logic is so flawed for kicking it to the states.

The CSI Affect has already given a lot of people fantastic expectations. I don't think you are in that camp, I'm only mentioning that phenomena because it has turned DNA into the final arbiter of guilt.

I believe we should be advancing DNA testing as quickly as possible and for that kind of research I'm willing to donate a portion of my stimulus package. But, I don't think SCOTUS is lagging behind all technological advances out of chosen ignorance.

Location, location, location.

It could argued that in order to make uniform the standard of living across the nation, refusing to extend access to yet another piece of the latest and greatest (which I don't believe DNA is quite yet) to every defendant, because otherwise their backward state will be satisfied to have the wrong guy, then there must be a federal level of evidence.

We all know how much states love that.

But defense attorneys want all the advantages and none of the disadvantages. So, when all the evidence is presented, and I mean all, no holding back anything, I'll give DNA a push.

Oh yeah, those pesky jurors. And the courts riddled with unionized officers fresh from worship at the Church of the ACLU. The constant manipulation of the triers of facts to make sure they over-consider the defendant, the evidence notwithstanding.

I have served jury duty to verdict four times in my life. I work for a defense firm.

The American legal system is a mere shadow of its ideals.

Cheryl Dubey said...

Sad Indeed. Is there a legitmate reason for not allowing inmates access? I for one can't think of one. And is there anything we can do about? I mean who makes these decisions?

FleaStiff said...

The court did not deny inmates access to dna testing, it only denied the existence of a right under the US Constitution to such access. All states are free to grant such access as soon as their legislatures act with all deliberate speed.

Its strange to hear of state's rights in this day and age wherein the slightest excuse is used to justify federal preemption. Refreshing, but strange!

I'm sure there was some concern about the backlog and the massive rush to test evidence and make claims that routine discarding of evidence constitutes spoliation, but perhaps also there was an awareness of all the forensic testimony scandals and a resultant hesitancy to embrace science quite so quickly.

Recently one man was sentenced to LWOP despite the dna excluding him. The orientation is often that criminals belong in prison even if they happen to be innocent of the particular crime they were convicted of. They should not get out and they should not receive compensation.

Anonymous said...

FleaStiff you make no sense. If someone is innocent of the crime they are being tried for they should not be convicted, period. If evidence excludes them they should not be convicted period.

It doesnt matter their history, or if they have a big black hairy mole on their face. WTF country do YOU live in?

Leah said...

Actually Fleastiff makes perfect sense [for once]. I wish I had read the decision before I posted the first time.

FleaStiff said...

Although all companies tout their discoveries as breakthroughs that will revolutionize the industry it seems that the recent paper in ACS does lend some support to the Quenching Probe-Universal Substrate technique recently announed in Japan as likely to greatly enhance the speed of dna tests and to substantially lower the costs. The lowered cost of the test may do more for defendants than any court decision has ever done.