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Friday, June 19, 2009

The Midnight Sun

Once upon a time in the land of the midnight sun, a nearsighted woman was raped by two men. She identified a man as one of them and he was sentenced to prison. Now, with the aid of the Innocence Project, he wants his DNA compared with fluids donated by the rapist to prove his innocence, asserting his willingness to pay for the tests himself so the state will have no financial excuse.

Many states have fashioned procedures for such post conviction testing. Alaska is not one of them. Their high court denied his request in 2001. Now the U.S. Supreme Court has issued a 5-4 opinion upholding the denial. Chief Justice Roberts wrote for the majority. He could find no provision in the Constitution that mentioned the right to a DNA test. As an example of the philosophy of judicial restraint, he suggested that this was an issue that state legislatures are better able to address. He was joined by Alito, Thomas, Scalia, and Kennedy (the so-called swing vote).

Justice Stevens dissented, finding it outrageous that a man must serve a life sentence when there is a means of proving or disproving his guilt which is available, cheap, and certain. And, oh yeah, isn’t there a provision called the 14th Amendment which guarantees "due process"? He was joined by Ginsberg, Breyer and Souter, who filed as separate dissenting opinion - differing from the other dissenters in the issue of how broad a "right" should be.

The case presents a fairly clear example of what is at stake in the selection of Supreme Court justices. The trenches are deep and apparent: judicial restraint vs. judicial activism. The issue: is there a court of last resort when an injustice is ignored by legislatures and state courts?

To be clear, before trial, an accused has a recognized right to access of the evidence to test it. That right was recognized long ago by the same Supreme Court (in Brady v. Maryland). Also, during post-conviction habeas corpus proceeding, most states and federal courts authorize appointment of experts for DNA testing. State rules about these processes vary greatly - most impose nearly insurmountable obstacles to overturn convictions.

The fact is that the legal system is psychologically defensive about admitting its possible errors. The tradition and bias is to favor closure over certainty. Conservative jurists wax eloquently about the need for finality in the system. Public opinion generally concurs - how many times have you heard the media decry the "endless appeals" by prisoners alleging "technicalities" and using "legal tricks" to overturn convictions?

In the 90's, Congress passed legislation (with President Clinton’s support) limiting access to habeas corpus post-convictions appeals. We are now living with the effects of that misguided law. To date, more than 200 guilty verdicts have been proven by DNA evidence to have been wrong. Many of those innocent people had been condemned to death or life sentences.

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