A prisoner’s right to DNA testing

Written by Janet

Sitting in an Alaskan prison is William Osborne.  He claims to be a victim of mistaken identity, and says that DNA will prove it.  Alaska prosecutors say his rape and attempted murder convictions are as solid as can be, and would be pointless to revisit.

On Monday, Osborne’s attorneys will argue before the Supreme Court that DNA testing is not something states can choose to allow when they have doubts about a conviction, but a constitutional right.

There are approximately 232 prisoners around the country that have been exhonorated by these tests.  Alaska is the only state that hasn’t even tried to use the ever-evolving technology to see if it might have gotten a conviction wrong.

“Most prosecutors, judges and states recognize that while DNA testing in these crimes may not always protect a conviction, it protects our system of justice by revealing the truth,” said Peter Neufeld, co-director of The Innocence Project. “Alaska is the exception.”

According to Neufeld’s group, the constitution guarantees Osborne access to the DNA test when it says no state shall “deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.  The state of Alaska says that Osborne got a fair trial, and that he is trying to use nothing more than a claim of innocence to reopen a case in which there is ample evidence of his guilt.

Osborne, 36, was convicted of raping and trying to murder a woman in 1993. She identified him as one of her two attackers, he was incriminated by the other man and Osborne confessed in a detailed written statement in 2004.

Ken Rosenstein, the state’s lead lawyer for the case, said Osborne chose not to use options available to him if he had wanted to argue his innocence, including asking the governor for clemency.

Prosecutors point to Osborne’s own words.  Instead of declaring his actual innocence, he has confessed, in graphic detail, to the precise crimes with which he was charged and convicted. 

At trial, Osborne asked that his attorney attempt to have the more precise DNA test conducted but she refused, telling him that the outcome of the DNA test that was done actually supported their case of mistaken identity, while another test might hurt it.  Osborne later argued unsuccessfully in Alaska courts that his lawyer had been ineffective because she failed to ask for the more discriminating DNA test.

Alaska courts determined that Osborne could not satisfy the requirements for postconviction testing, in part finding that his lawyer made a reasoned decision about the DNA test. 

Last year, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in Osborne’s favor, finding it was unconstitutional to deny him access to the test.  Alaska is seeking to reverse the federal ruling.  The state says if that if the ruling is allowed to stand, “then any state or federal prisoner would gain a federal constitutional right to reopen his case merely by asserting that new forensic-science technologies might establish his innocence.”

Osborne was paroled in 2007 after spending 14 years in prison for the attack. He was re-arrested six months later for an Anchorage home invasion and currently is in jail awaiting a 15-year sentence, which could be reduced if the semen was found not to be his.

Are convicts using this as a means to avoid punishment?

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