Saturday, June 20, 2009

A Loss of Innocence

Once again, the Supreme Court has effectively held that the concept of justice does not mean that justice should ultimately prevail in the halls of justice. Ruling in the DA's Office v. Osborne case, Supreme Court says convicts don't have right to DNA test, the Court found:

Prisoners have no constitutional right to DNA testing after their conviction, a split Supreme Court ruled yesterday, even though the technology provides an 'unparalleled ability both to exonerate the wrongly convicted and to identify the guilty.'

In the court's first examination of how to treat the rapidly evolving field of biological testing, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote for the 5-4 majority that it was up to the states and Congress to decide who has a right to testing that might prove innocence long after conviction.

The 'challenges DNA technology poses to our criminal justice systems and our traditional notions of finality' are better left to elected officials than federal judges, he wrote.

'To suddenly constitutionalize this area would short-circuit what looks to be a prompt and considered legislative response,' he wrote. He was joined by Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony M. Kennedy, Clarence Thomas, and Samuel A. Alito Jr.
Calling it "a beaut of a decision from the increasingly brutal and inhumane conservative-dominated Supreme Court," Matthew Yglesias observes (as I have also), that the Court's decision compounds the errors that can occur with the win-at-all costs mentality that all too often exists in criminal justice system:
Obviously, the purpose of the established system of criminal justice is to use punishment of the guilty as a means of controlling crime. The general hostility of most people in the law enforcement and prosecutorial universe to exonerating evidence is a little bit hard to understand. The predominant thinking of Alaska in this case seems to be that the punishment of the innocent works as a close substitute for the punishment of the guilty, so that given the heinous nature of the crime the state has a strong interest in convicting someone or other of it irrespective of the facts. This is exactly the sort of madness and injustice we rely on the judicial system to rescue us from. But not the new Roberts Court!
See Conservative Justices’ Strange Enthusiasm for the Punishment of the Innocent.

Of course, this is precisely what I would have expected the Court to do after denying an appeal in the Troy Davis case last year. In that case, which I've written about several times before, there were compelling issues raised about guilt or innocence in that death penalty case and Davis' attorneys appealed to the Supreme Court, hoping for a ruling that the Eighth Amendment creates a right of an innocent person not to be executed. The appeal also sought a new hearing to present the new evidence in an effort to spare his life, which the Court declined to accept for consideration.

But what else could be expected from the Roberts court, as BuzzFlash notes, High Court's Supremely Flawed DNA Ruling Puts States Rights Before Due Process, Justice, Public Safety and Empathy:
At the Supreme Court of the United States Thursday, a 5-4 ruling against William Osborne seemed to confirm that ideology and lack of empathy trump everything else for some of the right-leaning justices now serving there. 'Although the right wing bloc obviously consider themselves on the 'law and order' side of the bench, their lack of empathy in this matter actually promotes lawlessness and needlessly puts women in danger,' one court observer wrote yesterday.
Likewise, Lawyers, Guns and Money, in This Is Your Court On Conservatives, adds:
Roberts and his right-wing colleagues share another longstanding trait of American conservatives: prioritizing 'state's rights' over human rights. And as in most cases, the benefits of this as applied to this case are hard to discern. While federalism may promote liberty in some respects, there is no tangible benefit to permitting states to imprison potentially innocent people when assessing exculpatory evidence would entail little expense. And interpreting the due process clause to give the defendant a right to present exculpatory evidence in this case can only be a threat to the 'sovereignty' and 'dignity' of the states if one believes that there should be virtually no federal supervision of the state criminal procedure, which the 14th Amendment precludes even if it wasn't a stupid idea on the merits. If preventing illegal detention isn't at the heart of due process, I'm not sure what is.
Noting the criticism of the case and of the conservatives who endorsed it, Glenn Greenwald observes that the Obama DOJ also continued to advocate this egregious position before the Court as originally proposed by the Bush Administration, Obama, the Right and defendants' rights:
[T]his was yet another case where the Obama DOJ sided with the Bush administration and advocated the position that the conservative justices adopted. The Obama DOJ aggressively argued before the Court that convicted criminals have no constitutional right to access evidence for DNA analysis. Indeed, its decision to embrace this extreme Bush position caused much controversy and anger . . . .

* * * *

There may be justifications for what the Obama DOJ did (all other things being equal, government lawyers tend to prefer continuity in positions after changes in administration), but -- as is true for so many controversies these days -- it's rather difficult to heap all the blame on conservatives for something that the Obama administration itself embraces and is working to bring about.
What was not mentioned in Greenwald's piece is the fact that AG Eric Holder spoke out after the opinion was announced in favor of the use of DNA evidence. As reported by the Blog of the Legal Times, DNA Evidence Can Exonerate the Wrongfully Charged:
A day after the Supreme Court ruled defendants have no constitutional right to a review of DNA evidence in post-conviction proceedings, Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. underscored the Justice Department position that seeks to expand access to DNA evidence in the courts.

* * * *

“And we are mindful that DNA evidence can be used to exonerate those who are wrongfully charged,” Holder said today. “Our mission at the Justice Department is not simply to win cases. It is to do justice, and science and DNA can help us accomplish this.”

Yesterday, Holder issued a statement in response to the Supreme Court 5-4 decision in District Attorney's Office for the Third Judicial District v. Osborne that said, in part: “Constitutional rights are only one part of a fair and full system of justice. Simply because a course of action is constitutional does not make it wise.” Holder said in the statement that the Court “merely spoke about what is constitutional, not what is good policy.”
I'm not sure I agree that the constitution would not also require such a result, but I agree that it is good policy, at a minimum, to ensure that an ability to establish innocence is always guaranteed in our system of justice, at whatever stage in the process. As I mentioned before, with respect to the Troy Davis case, former Judge William Sessions noted:
Former Chief Justice William Rehnquist once wrote that the judicial system, “like the human beings who administer it, is fallible.” I agree. Especially when it comes to a human life, the courts should always be able to examine claims of innocence.

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