A lot of people are upset about yesterday’s Supreme Court decision in District Attorney’s Office v. Osborne holding that there is no post-conviction constitutional right to potentially exculpatory DNA evidence.
Not the Massachusetts Attorney General, however. Along with 30 other states, A.G. Martha Coakley signed on to an amicus (friend of the Court) brief urging the very ruling that the Court ultimately delivered. You can read the whole thing here (PDF) — that’s her name there on the third page. Here’s the summary of the states’ position:
INTEREST OF AMICI CURIAE
Forty-four states, in addition to the Federal Government, have enacted postconviction DNA testing statutes. Other states provide alternative rules and procedures for pursuing such testing. The Ninth Circuit’s broad right to postconviction DNA testing enforceable in 42 U.S.C. § 1983 actions undermines these effective and carefully-crafted state procedures, improperly overrides legislative judgments, and unnecessarily encourages federal bypass of state-law remedies. It also interferes with the finality of state criminal judgments and misallocates judicial resources by transforming federal district courts into routine arbiters of fact-specific DNA discovery disputes better entrusted to state trial courts.
SUMMARY OF ARGUMENT
Recognizing the importance of postconviction DNA testing, most state legislatures and the United States Congress have enacted comprehensive statutes that provide convicted offenders a meaningful opportunity to seek such testing in appropriate cases. Many of these state laws are modeled on the federal procedure set forth in 18 U.S.C. § 3600. Alaska and several other states provide reasonable non-statutory opportunities for testing. These state procedures allow convicted felons a fair opportunity for postconviction DNA testing while prudently enforcing limiting criteria that minimize wasteful and irrelevant testing. There is no legal foundation for the Ninth Circuit’s reading of the Due Process Clause to require a less discriminate procedure, enforceable in § 1983 actions, that would supersede this national body of legislation.
The availability of DNA technology does not justify federal override of state postconviction discovery procedures. DNA testing is not a crystal ball of guilt or innocence. It is, instead, a form of discovery the probative value of which depends upon the facts of any given case. In many cases, DNA testing after conviction would be a meaningless exercise. Even in seemingly meritorious cases, as the Ninth Circuit acknowledged, “there is a significant chance that the results [of DNA testing] will either confirm or have no effect on the validity of [a defendant’s] confinement.” Osborne v. District Attorney’s Office, 423 F.3d 1050, 1054 (9th Cir. 2005) (Osborne I).
The Ninth Circuit’s decision also misinterprets the Constitution’s limited application to state postconviction procedures and violates principles of federalism and judicial restraint. Legislatures, not the federal judiciary, should take the lead in evaluating the proper role for identification technology in facilitating collateral attack on otherwise final state judgments. Accordingly, a claim for postconviction DNA testing under § 1983 should not be cognizable where a state itself already provides a meaningful opportunity for such testing.
Shorter version: trust us. We can handle this.