U.S. Supreme Court Says Prisoners Have No Right to Test DNA Evidence That Could Exonerate Them


On June 18, 2009, the United States Supreme Court held that prisoners have no right to obtain DNA evidence for testing that could prove they are innocent, even if the prisoner pays for the testing himself.

The case, District Attorney’s Office for Third Judicial Dist. v. Osborne, No. 08-6 (U.S. June 18, 2009), involves the 1994 conviction of William Osborne, for sexual assault and kidnapping, in Alaska. At the time of Mr. Osborne’s trial, the type of DNA testing used was similar to blood-typing — it showed that Mr. Osborne could have been the source of biological evidence on a condom found at the crime scene, but so could thousands of other people in Alaska. Mr. Osborne was convicted and sentenced to 26 years in prison.

Since then, DNA testing technology has improved dramatically. New technology could conclusively show that someone else, not Mr. Osborne, is the source of the DNA evidence in his case, which would mean that he did not commit the crime for which he has been incarcerated for 15 years. Since 1973, 133 people in 26 states have been released from death row with evidence of their innocence.

Mr. Osborne offered to pay for the new testing himself; he asked only that the State of Alaska allow him access to the evidence for testing. The State denied Mr. Osborne’s request, although prosecutors conceded that such testing could categorically establish his guilt or innocence. He filed a federal lawsuit seeking access to the evidence, which was granted by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. Alaska appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, arguing that the Constitution does not require states to allow prisoners to conduct testing that could prove their innocence.

The Supreme Court agreed, reasoning that it did not need to recognize a constitutional right to access DNA evidence because most states permit access to DNA evidence as a matter of state law. In a 5-4 decision written by Chief Justice Roberts, the Court wrote that there was “nothing inadequate” about the general procedures in Alaska through which prisoners can try to gain access to evidence that might prove their innocence.

Alaska is one of only four states — Alabama, Alaska, Massachusetts and Oklahoma — that currently has no statute addressing access to DNA evidence. No one in Alaska has ever obtained access to DNA evidence for testing under Alaska law. Forty-six states, the District of Columbia, and the federal government permit access to DNA evidence in some cases, although many have strict requirements such as proof that the requested testing was technologically impossible at the time of the trial.

In October 2010, a new Alabama law will go into effect and provide for severely restricted access to DNA evidence for people convicted of capital offenses. The Alabama law does not allow DNA testing in any case where some DNA testing was done previously, and the law imposes strict time limits on an incarcerated person to request DNA testing.