June 19, 2009

SCOTUS rules that man has no right to post-conviction evidence

Even though the man offers to pay for the testing, and it could conclusively prove his guilt or innocence.

Perhaps someone can explain this to me, because as it is, it simply looks like conservative justices don't give a rat's ass if a state or the feds convict an innocent man.


leighton said...

I'm not a lawyer and I don't work at a criminal defense firm, but this reads to me like an argument from "Judicial workloads are already beyond overwhelming," which is true. Whether it's the most relevant consideration in this case isn't something I'm competent to assess, but it is a legitimate concern. Prosecutorial malice is a less common source of false convictions as the combination of detectives being too busy to track down the actual perpetrators of crimes, prosecutors having too much of a workload to notice, and public defenders being too overwhelmed to spend enough time on their clients' case to point all this out.

46 states (and the federal government) have laws on the books governing procedures for convicted parties' access to DNA evidence post-conviction. Roberts seems to be arguing (a) that the remaining 4 states, including Alaska where all this is taking place, should find a solution that strikes the correct balance between the rights of the accused and the logistical needs of the courts, and (b) the Supreme Court shouldn't interfere with the balance that the feds and the other 46 states have already decided upon.

All that said, I agree with Stevens' dissent, particularly in his observations of the unreasonable difficulty the petitioner experienced in seeking post-conviction relief under Alaska law.

steves said...

Leighton, your analysis seems correct. I skimmed through the decision, but it isn't a short read, at 62 pages. At first glance, I have a hard time agreeing with the majority, but without reading the other cases mentioned, it is hard to say.

They said:

It would shift to the Federal Judiciary responsibilityfor devising rules governing DNA access and creating a new constitu-tional code of procedures to answer the myriad questions that wouldarise. There is no reason to suppose that federal courts’ answers to those questions will be any better than those of state courts and leg-islatures, and good reason to suspect the opposite.

This is a compelling argument and I wonder if that Court is equipped to set standards for DNA testing for the entire nation. It is possible that the court could have found Alaska's DNA scheme to be inadequate and just told they to go back to the drawing board. It is hard to say. I will have to read the decision more closely.

Streak said...

Here is my bottom line: our justice system should be as just as possible. My worst fear is to be in the wrong place at the wrong time and be wrongfully convicted of a crime. The court seems to be saying here that they don't really care about that, and that strikes me as horrific. I understand there are limits on resources and court workloads, but this seems as basic to me as habeas review.

I appreciate you both taking a look. I am feeling less than charitable toward conservatives today, and need some other observers.

leighton said...

Streak, I agree. It seems that the difference between the two sides of the decision is that the dissent is saying "He should have access to his DNA evidence, period," while the majority rules that "He should have access to his DNA evidence, but we're not the ones who should determine how." The judicial branch recusing itself happens all the time, even in situations where the right course of action seems pretty clear. But I'm still more sympathetic to Stevens' dissent, which seemed to leave the door open to case-specific remedies that wouldn't necessarily have broad consequences like the ones that troubled Roberts. But I don't read a huge number of cases, so I could be wrong.

steves said...

The question revolves whether the postconviction relief he is asking for rises to the level of a liberty interest under the due process clause. I agree that a court has to be just, but it is still bound by the law and the Constitution. I think both sides make compelling arguments.

Streak said...

I understand some of this, but not all. I understand that there can be unintended consequences, for example by allowing some kind of test in one situation that leads to either massive problems in the other states or even injustice elsewhere. But I don't understand what "liberty interest" is here, and I am still unclear how the law and constitution are in conflict with a potentially innocent man getting evidence that might exonerate him.

steves said...

The Due Process Clause says that "nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law." The Court has said that this will only apply in certain areas where a defendant has a liberty interest. There is a liberty interest in seeking some kind of postconviction relief. Prior caselaw says that a Federal Court may only upset a State proceedind if it is fundamentally inadequate "to vindicate the substative right provided."

As far as I can tell, the Court felt that the procedures set up by Alaska for challenging a conviction were adequate and didn't rise to the level of "fundamentally inadequate." They also seem unwilling to say that the Due Process Clause provides a right to DNA testing.

steves said...

I found some good write ups on this case...at least better than what the NYT has. One is from the Innocence Project, which is a group I have heard about in the past and have a very high opinion of them. They represented the defendant in this case. ScotusBlog also has a good analysis.

I would have to say that despite some very good arguments by the majority, the state of Alaska has lousy procedures for postconvicion challenges via DNA evidence. I am leaning more towards the dissent and a rare concurrence with Justice Stevens.

leighton said...

Good links, Steve, and very informative. I suspect if newspapers actually wrote analysis of that caliber that they wouldn't be in as much financial trouble.