Thursday, June 18, 2009

On Hung Juries and DNA Testing

Justices Rule Inmates Don't Have Right to DNA Testing:

Convicts do not have a right under the Constitution to obtain DNA testing to try to prove their innocence after being found guilty, the Supreme Court ruled on Thursday.

In a 5-to-4 decision, the court found against William G. Osborne, a convicted rapist from Alaska. But the decision does not necessarily mean that many innocent prisoners will languish in their cells without access to DNA testing, since Alaska is one of only a few states without a law granting convicts at least some access to the new technology.

“DNA testing has an unparalleled ability both to exonerate the wrongly convicted and to identify the guilty,” the majority conceded, in an opinion written by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. “The availability of new DNA testing, however, cannot mean that every criminal conviction, or even every conviction involving biological evidence, is suddenly in doubt.”
Particularly as it relates to the facts of this case. Osborne was overwhelmingly guilty of the crimes he was convicted of (even admitting so in a parole application several years ago) and was clearly trying to use DNA testing to create reasonable doubt where essentially there was none. In that sense, the majority (Roberts, C.J., Scalia, Kennedy, Thomas, Alito) gets it right.

But only in this case. As I noted last February, by coming down against DNA access, the court advocates uncertainty in criminal convictions. As Stevens notes in his dissent, "the Court refuses to acknowledge 'in the circumstances of this case' any right to access the evidence that is grounded in the Due Process Clause itself."

To put it more succinctly, it was a lousy case by which to render a decision on something this important. Why not take a case from the hundreds of inmates who might have been, in fact, innocent of the crimes for which they were convicted? By taking the case of Osborne, who was clearly guilty and merely trying to use DNA testing to muck up the system, the court slams the door on uniform rules by which to allow access. Most unfortunate.

The case is District Attorney's Office v. Osborne (2009).

In other SCOTUS news, the court ruled 6-3 that the fifth amendment's double jeopardy clause applies to charges where a jury is unable to render a verdict of guilt or acquittal (but does acquit on others). Said Stevens (joined by C.J. Roberts, Kennedy, Souter, Ginsburg and Breyer):
An apparent inconsistency between a jury’s verdict of acquittal on some counts and its failure to return a verdict on other counts does not affect the acquittals’ preclusive force under the Double Jeopardy Clause.
Basically, if the government charges you with five crimes, of which the jury acquits you on two and hangs on three, the government can't come back and prosecute you anew on the three charges the jury was unable to render a verdict. Traditionally, a hung jury can result in a mistrial, and the defendant can be re-tried. What this decision says is that if a jury renders a verdict on at least one of the charges, and hangs on the others, that's the end of the matter (guilty or not).

This is actually an important ruling, and is not getting much of the press the DNA decision is. The implications are enormous for the government in how it prosecutes defendants charged with multiple crimes.

The case is Yeager v. U.S. (2009).

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