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Every exoneration means not only that an innocent person did time for a crime he didn’t commit, but also that the person who actually committed the crime was allowed to go free. One amicus brief filed on Osborne’s behalf by several former prosecutors (including former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno) points to several cases in which prosecutors vigorously fought DNA testing for years. When the tests were finally done, they not only cleared the defendant, but when checked against DNA databases they were able to identify the actual culprit. In some cases, the actual culprit escaped justice, because in the time the prosecutors spent blocking the test in the courts, the crime’s statute of limitations had expired. In other cases, the actual culprit passed away. Many times the real culprits went on to commit more crimes.
The anti-Osborne position puts a premium on finality and closure. The landmark case Brady v. Maryland (1963), established that the state is obligated to turn over any exculpatory evidence to defense attorneys before the start of a trial, on the premise that our criminal justice system values uncovering the truth over merely winning convictions. The state of Alaska and its supporters are arguing in Osborne that once a defendant has exhausted his appeals, those values switch, making the protection of a conviction more important than achieving actual justice.
Radley Balko is a senior editor at Reason magazine.