Do Convicts Have a Constitutional Right to Access Crime-Scene DNA? The U.S. Supreme Court Considers the Question

By SHERRY F. COLB
Monday, Nov. 10, 2008

The U.S. Supreme Court recently agreed to hear an appeal in a criminal case involving DNA, District Attorney's Office v. Osborne. William G. Osborne - a man who, fourteen years ago, was convicted of kidnapping and sexual assault in Alaska - argues in a civil rights lawsuit against the District Attorney's office that the State must now provide him with physical evidence from the crime scene, so that he can perform a DNA analysis that would not have been technologically possible at the time of his trial.

In an overwhelming number of jurisdictions, convicts are entitled to access such evidence, but Alaska is one of six states that do not recognize this right. The Supreme Court will now consider whether the U.S. Constitution guarantees any degree of post-conviction access (at least where, as in this case, the convict is willing to foot the bill for DNA testing and the evidence is still in storage).

In this column, I will consider a slightly different question, but one that is related to what the Court will consider: Why might a State want to prevent a convict from gaining access to forensic evidence for DNA testing?

It is important to ask this question because if there is absolutely no reason for such resistance, then the State's refusal might be characterized under the law as having no "rational basis." Although the "rational basis" standard is quite lenient, the Supreme Court has repeatedly held that a state action or law that truly has no rationale at all violates the Due Process of the Fourteenth Amendment. How can we tell whether a rational basis exists? According to the Court, the Due Process Clause requires that all state conduct bear some connection to a legitimate governmental objective. In this column, I will examine whether any such connection exists here.

One Possible Legitimate Government Objective: Closure

One interest that the government may claim, after the conclusion of a criminal case, is in closure. The defendant benefitted from the presumption of innocence up until the moment at which a jury found him guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. At that point, the presumption - appropriately and decisively - shifted towards guilt.

Decisions about a convict's future are thus rightly made on the basis of the premise that he is guilty. For instance, he may be incarcerated as a punishment for his crime, on the assumption that he in fact committed it. He also may be examined by a parole board and judged "unrepentant" for his failure to take responsibility for his actions, a judgment that would be odd in the case of a person who is either innocent or presumptively so. Finally, he has only limited opportunities to challenge his conviction, and the opportunities he does have focus primarily on claims of procedural error (the admission of inadmissible evidence, the failure of his attorney to represent him adequately, race discrimination in the selection of his jury) rather than on claims that he might actually be innocent.

Given this focus on procedure - specifically, the adequacy of the convict's trial leading up to his conviction and sentence - an opportunity to re-examine physical evidence that was available at the time of trial might seem an improper attempt to re-litigate the question of innocence, especially in the absence of any new reason to doubt the defendant's guilt.

The sole purpose of examining DNA evidence, after all, is to attempt - again - to rebut the government's assertions that he is guilty of the crime for which he has been convicted. To allow the convict (and other convicts) access to such evidence is to acknowledge that there is a non-trivial chance that he might be innocent, and that acknowledgement is at least in some tension with the presumption of guilt that prevails.

Indeed, in the case before the Supreme Court, Osborne, who was convicted of a brutal rape (which could easily have been a murder if the victim had not survived being beaten with an axe handle, shot at, and left for dead after having been raped), has already confessed in detail to his role in the crime, in a written application for parole and at a subsequent parole hearing, at which he indicated that he had also confessed the truth to his attorney and to his mother.

The difficulty with this closure argument, however, is that in the case of DNA evidence, convicts who, like Osborne, were convicted years ago, are asking to examine evidence to which they truly did not have access at trial, given the state of technology at the time. As with the discovery, post-conviction, of another dead body relevant to a murder case, it is quite possible that if DNA evidence had been available before or during trial, the prosecution or defense might, respectively, have conducted themselves quite differently. The prosecution might have ruled out the defendant's guilt or the defendant might have offered powerfully exculpatory evidence. Self-serving "confessions" might not have been offered.

It may turn out, of course, that the DNA in Osborne's case - or in any given case - proves incriminating rather than exculpatory. Either way, though, the evidence - consisting of semen from the condom and hair samples found at the crime scene, which can now be subjected to very precise DNA probing - is highly relevant to guilt. Yet neither party was in a position to examine this evidence at the time of trial.

Rather than preclude closure, in other words, an examination of DNA evidence - at the convict's own expense - could potentially provide closure. And it could provide the kind of closure that ought to be appealing from everyone's perspective - proof that the convict was in fact involved in the crime for which he was convicted or, perhaps, proof that he could not have been so involved. Both the prosecuting attorney and the defense attorney ought to find the prospect of such closure desirable.

Another Possible Government Objective: Avoiding The Slippery Slope

The government, however, has another potentially legitimate objective to assert here. In addition to seeking factual closure following a conviction, the government might also seek the sort of closure that people derive from the expiration of a statute of limitations. That is, the government might take the view that if it can be required to make physical evidence available to convicts for newly-possible DNA testing, then it could also be required to preserve evidence long after it might otherwise have disposed of it, just in case new technologies develop that might allow for the gleaning of facts that were previously unavailable. Such a requirement, in turn, would entail storage and record-keeping that could prove very expensive.

As it happens, in Osborne's particular case, the evidence at issue is already available, but if a convict were understood to have a "right" (as opposed to the option of making a request that could lawfully be denied) to such evidence, then it might appear inappropriate for the government to destroy physical evidence that might some day yield new information about the convict's actual guilt or innocence.

Could a constitutional right on the part of the defendant properly turn on the storage practices of an individual police department or prosecutor's office? Mightn't any disposal of evidence, in view of such a right, be read as obstruction of justice?

On the assumption - a legally legitimate assumption - that a convicted person truly did commit the offenses at issue, the Alaska D.A.'s office could argue that a robust right of access to trial evidence for re-analysis would be costly, and that the cost would not be justified, to the extent that the police, prosecutors, and jurors truly do provide a fair process to a criminal defendant. The Alaska D.A. could also argue that a right that turned instead on whether the government had in fact happened to store the evidence would, at best, be arbitrary and, at worst, could motivate law enforcement and prosecutors to dispose of evidence quickly and thus avoid the need to re-litigate guilt and innocence after a successful verdict.

The Power of Denial

In an opinion affirming that Osborne does in fact have a right to access the evidence he seeks, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit found the D.A.'s resistance perplexing. The evidence - a condom that the prosecutor contended at trial contained semen from the rape, and pubic hair found on the victim's clothing (and introduced by the prosecutor against Osborne as well) - could help establish conclusively that the defendant is guilty. And if DNA testing were instead to call Osborne's guilt into serious question, it could generate a biological profile that might help identify the actual perpetrator. In this case, at least, a DNA test appears to represent a win-win proposition that - to the puzzlement of the Ninth Circuit panel - the State would foreclose "by its simple refusal to open the evidence locker." Even if it is not, in other words, surprising that the Alaska D.A.'s office would want to avoid creation of a potentially generalizable right, it is peculiar that it refused Osborne the evidence he sought in the first place.

Yet it should not be entirely perplexing that prosecutors would resist coming face-to-face with evidence that might establish that they have - albeit unwittingly - been party to a grave miscarriage of justice: the long-term incarceration of an utterly innocent person. It is one thing, in other words, to know in the abstract that some people have been convicted and subsequently shown to be innocent on the basis of a previously unavailable DNA test. It is quite another to learn that you have made a mistake and that your witnesses misidentified an innocent man as the perpetrator of unspeakable crimes, thus leading to his wrongful incarceration.

Indeed, if such evidence were to come to light - even assuming you did not concern yourself with the public reaction to the disclosure - you might well begin to doubt every case you bring, including the many cases in which there neither was, nor ever will be, DNA evidence that could "expose" the truth. Paraphrasing the words of Jack Nicholson in "A Few Good Men," prosecutors may be unable to "handle" the truth that DNA testing might unearth in particular cases.

An Easy Case That Is Hard to Call

I am not prepared to predict that the Supreme Court will affirm the Ninth Circuit in this case - although it surely should. For one thing, Justice Scalia is very likely to vote to reverse. He has shown hostility (expressed in Herrera v. Collins) to "actual innocence" claims in general, and here we have a claim that is a mere preparatory step to an "actual innocence" claim - if the DNA test exculpates Osborne, he can then bring a habeas corpus petition arguing for his release.

Given their usual orientation toward the State's position in criminal law cases, Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Thomas and Alito are likely to go along with Justice Scalia. Justice Kennedy is less predictable, so the result - as in so many cases now before the Court - will probably turn on how he sees things.

Notwithstanding the difficulty of predicting its outcome, however, I will venture to say that this is (or ought to be) an easy win for the respondent. Whatever might happen in future cases, the evidence at issue here is unquestionably available. The police department, in fact, has specifically agreed to provide the evidence if the D.A.'s office instructs it to do so. The prosecutor introduced the evidence at issue at the trial and presented the results of a rudimentary DNA test in support of conviction - though the test merely narrowed the population of possible suspects to a group consisting of 14.7 to 16 percent of African-American men, including Osborne. The DNA tests currently available would, by contrast, provide a genetic profile with one-in-a-billion specificity. And Osborne is willing to pay for the DNA test himself.

Given all of these facts, this should be an easy call. Other cases in the future might be more difficult: the police department that is poised to discard the evidence at issue for reasons of cost; the convict who cannot afford to pay for the DNA test himself; the prosecutor who did not rely on the physical evidence to prove guilt; or the situation in which a negative DNA match does not plainly undermine confidence in the verdict. Here, however, the prosecutor should simply have provided the evidence, rather than force Osborne to bring a lawsuit against the District Attorney's office to get what ought to be his obvious due.

It is the D.A.'s failure willingly to hand over the DNA that most powerfully suggests that simple denial is the force at work in this case. If a prosecutor were confident in Osborne's guilt, he would surely want the DNA results, if only to quiet any doubts - including those of the defense - about the possibility that he pursued the wrong man. But how could the prosecutor be utterly confident? Cases that looked airtight at the time have washed away in the wake of DNA evidence. Confident eyewitness identifications that seemed persuasive have turned out to be mistaken.

Yet prosecutors must rely on non-DNA evidence in a large number of cases: they do not have the "luxury" of a near-certain biological identification for every defendant. And for these and other cases, prosecutors do not want to lose faith in the process. Like the city-dweller who fears seeing a cockroach scurrying away after turning on a kitchen light, the prosecutor might prefer to close his eyes. The preference is perhaps a comprehensible expression of human nature. But it is not any kind of justification for withholding the evidence in District Attorney's Office v. Osborne.


Sherry F. Colb is Professor of Law and Charles Evans Hughes Scholar at Cornell Law School. Her book, When Sex Counts: Making Babies and Making Law, is currently available on Amazon.