Supreme Court Rules in Favor of Post-Conviction DNA Testing

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Test for innocence or guilt

Hooray! There is simply no excuse for refusing to test DNA evidence after conviction. The Los Angeles Times reports:

The Supreme Court on Monday gave a Texas prisoner who was nearly executed last year the right to seek DNA evidence from the crime scene that he says could prove his innocence.

The 6-3 decision opens a narrow window for prisoners to sue for and obtain DNA evidence that went untested at the time of their trials.

In recent years, most states have enacted laws that allow prisoners to seek DNA testing of evidence that could prove crucial to their cases. The high court ruling is expected to add to the momentum for DNA testing and help prisoners in those states that have resisted new testing of old evidence.

Last March, Hank Skinner came within hours of being put to death for the murder of his live-in girl friend and her two sons in 1993. Skinner maintained that he was innocent, even though his blood was found on one of the victim's clothes and his bloody palm prints were found throughout the house.

Skinner insisted another man had committed the crime while he was drunk and asleep on the couch, and he sought DNA testing of two knives, an ax handle, fingernail clippings and hair samples that were found near the murder victims. The evidence had not been tested prior to his trial, and since his conviction, local and state prosecutors have steadfastly refused to permit it to be tested. They argued that it is too late for a convicted prisoner to seek testing of evidence that was available at the time of the trial.

As I wrote in a 2000 column advocating the expansion of post-conviction DNA testing: 

…the exoneration of convicts based on DNA evidence shows that the technology can also be used as a check on government, and proposals for public financing of these tests make sense. Indeed, the federal and state governments should be eager to pay for DNA testing and analysis to be sure that no innocent person has been wrongfully imprisoned. After all, if the government isn't about rendering justice, what is it about?

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  1. Huh. Thomas dissented.

    1. Alito and Kennedy dissented, too, but one doesn’t expect them to be on the right side of stuff.

      What was Thomas’ reasoning?

      1. “What prisoner would not avail himself of this additional bite at the apple,” Thomas asked.

        When pressed, Thomas said, “Better a hundred innocents be executed than to let one guilty man walk.”

        Only the second quote was made up.

      2. I didn’t read the opinion or the dissent, so no telling. Probably coming at it from the burden of dealing with all of the DNA appeals. I doubt that’s a compelling argument from the libertarian perspective, which is why his vote surprises me. Still, I’m guessing without having the slightest idea what his reasoning was.

        1. Reading the dissent, it sounds like Thomas doesn’t think the federal courts have jurisdiction to decide due process challenges to collateral review processes. Which is ridiculous. If a state were to have a patently unconstitutional and ludicrous review process*, the federal court system needs to step in and maintain that citizens of the US have their constitutional rights protected.

          * For example, using the World Cup predicting squid to decide whether or not a ruling is appealed or upheld

          1. “appealed or upheld” should be “overturned or upheld”.

          2. That squid is dead, anyway, so that kind of superior justice is unavailable to us.

            1. He’s not dead. He’s just resting.

              1. It’s not a parrot. It’s a squid. Until there’s a squid sketch, stop repressing me.

                1. Well, stop farming shit and I will.

                  1. bloody peasants…

          3. I believe that his argument is that the Texas law was not patently unconstitutional and ludicrous, since it allows prisoners to request tests, but not to know about DNA evidence, fail to request a test, and then try again with a DNA test if convicted.

            From the article:

            Although Texas adopted a limited law allowing some prisoners to seek DNA testing, it closed the door to inmates such as Skinner who knew of the key evidence at the time of their trial and failed to have it tested then.

            The argument somewhat being that people who knew that they were innocent would almost certainly demand DNA tests of evidence if they knew it were possible.

            More directly, it’s an argument that it’s not a due process violation if you knowingly sabotaged your own defense– that doesn’t let you then demand a new trial. In some kind of absurd limit, this would allow an infinite number of trials if a prisoner kept knowingly adopting ridiculous defenses, then asking for a new trial based on the previous defense being ineffective. The case would be different if the prosecutor were hiding the evidence or the prisoner otherwise didn’t know about.

            1. To be sure, it’s not the defendant who knows anything. It’s his counsel. There’s always the argument that the defense counsel was a doofus.

              1. Yes, certainly you’re right that it was his trial lawyer probably making the decision, and the argument of ineffective counsel always remains. I think that argument and remedy should remain open. However, it does not seem that in this case he made such a claim.

                1. I wonder if other types of exculpatory evidence are treated similarly? I’m not criminal lawyer, so I have no idea. It seems to me that if the evidence is promising enough to justify an appeal, there should be an appeal.

                  1. I’m not a criminal lawyer. I’m also not Russian.

              2. The other part of his ruling is that after the accused asked for the DNA testing and was told by the Texas courts that the Texas law didn’t allow it (because he hadn’t asked for it sooner), the accused did not challenge that interpretation of Texas procedures under Texas courts, skipping straight to federal courts. From the dissent:

                Congress requires that before a state prisoner may seek relief in federal court, he must “exhaus[t] the remedies available in the courts of the State…
                For example, Skinner has never presented his current challenge to Texas’ procedures for postconviction relief to the Texas courts.

                All of that still seems to rely on the argument that the Texas statute requiring timely filing of a request for DNA testing (with exceptions if the accused didn’t know about the evidence available) is not prima facie a violation of procedural or substantive due process.

                1. Maybe I should read the danged opinion rather than speculating. I suppose the dissent’s objections could be on narrower grounds.

          4. It’s a World Cup predicting octopus damnit.

            1. You mean it was. It’s an ex-octopus.

      3. Found it:

        In dissent, Justice Clarence Thomas, writing for himself and Justices Samuel Alito and Anthony Kennedy, wrote that the majority’s opinion was not warranted by Court precedent and inappropriately gave convicted prisoners like Skinner what Justice Thomas called “a road map” to challenge their state court proceedings. “What prisoner would not avail himself of this additional bite at the apple,” he said.

        Yes, it is SOO inconvenient that people about to executed would like to get DNA testing that might prove exculpatory.

        1. Indeed, its a complete cop-out to say that we cannot allow prisoners to appeal in such a way because its “hard on the system”

          1. I get that most convicts are, in fact, guilty, but some clearly aren’t. I, for one, think it’s a big deal that we’re locking up innocent people.

            1. I, for one, think its a BIGGER deal that we’re KILLING innocent people.

              1. Indeed. No undoing that mistake.

          2. If it’s “hard on the system”, the system has too many people going through it.

            1. Yo, fuck the system.

            2. If there was only some way of lightning the load on the system. Some way, that wouldn’t imprison thousands and thousands of non-violent offenders….hmmmmm.

              Oh well! Off to build the gallows!

              1. Shit. Lightening.

                They can lightning the system too, for all I care.

        2. And the little people might get restless when they find out how many people we’ve wrongly convicted. Gentlemen, we have to protect our phoney-baloney jobs!

        3. It seems what he finds inconvenient is when people know about the evidence, know about the possibility of having it tested for DNA, choose not to ask for the DNA testing at trial, and only then post-conviction when execution is imminent ask for the DNA tests.

          I think it’s absolutely part of due process that people should have access to DNA testing of all evidence, and that it’s clearly a due process violation if the DA hides any evidence (even if the DA doesn’t plan to use it at trial) to prevent the accused from asking for DNA testing.

          However, I think that Justice Thomas has a point that it’s less of a due process violation if the accused is made well aware of the evidence and the possibility of DNA testing, chooses not to ask for it, and then waits for years after conviction to ask for it at the last minute. That does strike me as different than if the evidence had been hidden or if he had made a request for DNA testing and the DA had ignored him.

          1. Considering people don’t know their basic rights, like the fact that you don’t have to let a cop search your car or home if he asks. What makes you think that people know some of the most esoteric stuff, like requesting DNA evidence? Not everyone watches CSI.

          2. John Thacker: Query: Testing DNA in this case would not necessarily lead to a new trial would it? It’s just a test. If the result turns out exculpatory, one hopes that prosecutors would let the guy out; if inconclusive perhaps order a new trial; and if inculpatory inject him with a clear conscience.

          3. However, I think that Justice Thomas has a point that it’s less of a due process violation if the accused is made well aware of the evidence and the possibility of DNA testing, chooses not to ask for it, and then waits for years after conviction to ask for it at the last minute. That does strike me as different than if the evidence had been hidden or if he had made a request for DNA testing and the DA had ignored him.

            That’s not exactly what happened in Skinner’s case. Skinner requested the DNA test (and produced a letter to his attorney documenting the request), but his court-appointed attorney refused to ask for it. The attorney says he feared it would confirm Skinner’s guilt. That attorney, by the way, was a former prosecutor who had to resign after getting caught stealing money from a drug forfeiture. He had also actually prosecuted Skinner on a misdemeanor assault.

            1. The attorney says he feared it would confirm Skinner’s guilt

              And he was most likely right. He can not explain exactly why he feared this, due to attorney-client privilege, but any person with remedial education in criminal justice can guess.

      4. Alito and Kennedy dissented, too, but one doesn’t expect them to be on the right side of stuff.

        Is not Kennedy usually considered the swing vote?

  2. his blood was found on one of the victim’s clothes and his bloody palm prints were found throughout the house.

    Methinks, the testing will delay the inevitable

    1. He’s innocent. We were playing golf together and Det. Mark Fuhrman came by and siphoned his blood

  3. After all, if the government isn’t about rendering justice, what is it about?

    Is that really a can of worms you want to re-open?

    1. After all, if the government isn’t about rendering justice, what is it about?

      Theft; exortion; coercion — i could go on, but I’ve got shit to do today.

  4. Well, I’d think the gov’t would want their DNA tested to see if their organs were worth harvesting…

    1. I thought that was the whole point of DNA testing?

      Actually, this makes sense. Now that it’s clearly part of due process, every convicted felon will try to get himself exonerated via DNA evidence. In so doing, the government will get DNA delivered to it, ready for analysis.

      Now I understand Thomas’ position–he wants to prevent mass organ harvesting.

  5. When Scalia and Thomas disagree, Thomas is almost always the one in the right. This is the rare exception.

    1. I’m a little surprised this wasn’t 9-0.

      1. I’m saddened, but not surprised.

        -jcr

      2. Which way, Pro L?

        1. The last vestiges of naivete have been blown out of my system.

    2. Thomas loves “local” authority so I’m not surprised. Scalia is all about his “own” authoritah!

  6. After all, if the government isn’t about rendering justice, what is it about?

    If you’re a DA, it’s about posting a winning record.

    1. DA: “DUH” “WINNING”

  7. So, if this guy’s DNA isn’t found on or in the two knives, an ax handle, fingernail clippings and hair samples and someone else’s is, how do we get reasonable doubt that this guy did it?

  8. Anyone else think Alito’s gone shitrogue? since Citizens United?

    1. He’s getting in touch with his inner wise Latina.

  9. If we spend all our money like this on having a fair justice system, enforcing contracts, and non interventionist national defense, people will be dying in the streets.

  10. you can’t have too many blondes.

  11. “They argued that it is too late for a convicted prisoner to seek testing of evidence that was available at the time of the trial”

    If said prosecutors really believed he was guilty, why are they objecting to a test that would prove it?

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