FindLaw KnowledgeBasePublished: 2009-07-08
For years, national watchdog groups such as The Justice Project in Washington, D.C., have claimed that thousands of innocent people are wrongfully convicted and incarcerated in state and federal prisons throughout the United States every year. Human rights groups argue that the general lack of accountability allows prosecutors to disregard important DNA evidence that is now available to the courts. The watchdog groups want judges and prosecutors to be held accountable for ensuring that the accused has access to the evidence, even when defense attorneys aren't aware it is available.
New laws allowing DNA analysis of old evidence for criminal cases would seem to bear out the accuracy of the groups' claims. In many cases, people charged with violent crimes such as murder and first-degree sexual assault did not have access to defense attorneys with knowledge and experience in using the latest forensic technology. Texas, for example, introduced a new standard for DNA testing in capital punishment cases in 1994. After a review of evidence under the new standards, 39 inmates have been exonerated, after serving more than 500 combined years behind bars.
In June 2009, however, the United States Supreme Court ruled in a 5-4 decision that criminal defendants have no constitutional right to DNA testing in a post conviction challenge. In the majority decision the court reasoned that providing finality was important. Obviously, the court placed finality above making sure that only the guilty are convicted. The court in a narrow decision appears willing to sacrifice a few innocent people for expediency. Each State will now be allowed to decide whether and when post conviction DNA testing is required or mandated. It is possible that because of budget shortfalls many states will deny most if not all post conviction defendants the right to have their DNA compared to the DNA collected many years prior at the crime scene.
While inroads have been made, watchdog groups are quick to add that the standards of evidence and consistency of laws across all states must be made more uniform. Despite citizens' growing awareness of DNA evidence because of popular shows such as CSI, not all police investigation units have the equipment or resources to test for forensic evidence. Further, while the examination of DNA evidence can expand opportunities for a fair defense, authorities admit that there is nothing that society can do to restore years of a person's life lost behind bars.