An editorial / By Dale McFeatters
Scripps Howard News Service
June 19, 2009
In the words of Attorney General Eric Holder, the decision is limited: "the court merely spoke about what is constitutional, not what is good policy." And it would be good policy to have uniform national standards on under what circumstance prisoners can have access to post-conviction DNA testing.
Now, those standards are left to the states, and it was unfortunate for William Osborne -- if he truly believed in his innocence -- that he was convicted in Alaska, one of three states, along with Massachusetts and Oklahoma, that do not have laws spelling out the rights of prisoners to DNA testing of evidence in their cases.
Osborne's case is hardly likely to engender sympathy.
He was convicted of the 1993 kidnapping of a prostitute who was raped, beaten with an ax handle, shot in the head and left to die in a snow bank. He was identified by his victim and an accomplice. A condom found at the scene was subjected to a preliminary DNA test that showed that the semen could have come from Osborne but also 15 percent of other African-American men. His lawyer did not push for more extensive DNA testing for fear that it would conclusively prove his client's guilt.
Osborne was sentenced to 26 years in prison and later confessed to the crime, evidently in some detail, at a 2004 parole hearing. While in prison, he sued for the more sophisticated DNA testing, which he would pay for, arguing that it was his constitutional right under the due-process clause.
The majority of the court, perhaps seeing itself called on to reinterpret the Constitution for every breakthrough in evidentiary technology, said that post-conviction genetic testing was a matter for Congress and the states. Simple fairness, let alone justice, says that DNA testing should be made available, even after trial, if it would conclusively prove guilt or innocence.
Since the 1980s, according to the Innocence Project, 240 prisoners nationwide have been cleared through DNA testing.
As for Osborne, he's back in prison awaiting sentencing on a conviction for an armed home invasion committed while he was on parole.
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