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Post-Conviction DNA Analysis

Introduction

Prosecutors and defense attorneys routinely use DNA evidence at trial to prove that a defendant did or did not commit a crime, but DNA analysis can also be used after a trial has already resulted in a conviction. In fact, requests for post-conviction DNA analysis have become so prevalent that the federal government and almost every state have passed laws that govern when and how a convict can request to revisit a conviction based on new DNA evidence.

The use of post-conviction DNA analysis has already resulted in the release of many people who were incorrectly convicted of crimes. The Innocence Project, a group dedicated to the use of post-conviction DNA analysis to free the wrongfully convicted, has counted 266 instances in the United States where post-conviction DNA analysis has resulted in the release of prisoners.

Post-conviction DNA analysis is typically available in cases where testing wasnt available at the time of the original trial or when technology has advanced to a level that offers a more accurate test than the one used previously.

A post-conviction DNA analysis can result in the release of a convicted prisoner in two ways: first, the DNA evidence could prove conclusively that the prisoner did not commit the crime in question; second, the DNA evidence could raise a reasonable doubt that justifies overturning the conviction without conclusively proving innocence.

Categories of Post-Conviction DNA Analysis Cases

According to DNA.gov, the website for the National Institute of Justices DNA Initiative, there are five broad categories that describe post-conviction DNA cases:

  1. Cases where both the prosecution and the defense agree that a post-conviction DNA analysis should occur. In this category, the two sides can probably work together without the need for judicial intervention.
  2. Cases where testing wont prove innocence on its own, but it could help secure a new trial, a pardon, a commutation or executive clemency. Also cases where the prosecution and defense cannot agree on how useful testing will be. For this category, the sides will probably require the assistance of a judicial officer to resolve their differences.
  3. Cases where testing will not produce conclusive results.
  4. Cases where testing cannot proceed because of lost, damaged or destroyed biological samples, or in instances where investigators did not collect biological samples at all.
  5. Cases where the prisoner makes a false claim of innocence and both the prosecutor and defense attorney agree that testing should not occur.

 

Cases that fall into the second category require judges to examine the details of the case and determine whether the situation meets the requirements of the applicable statute.

Standards for Post-Conviction DNA Analysis Cases

Every state except for Massachusetts and Oklahoma has a law on the books that sets out the standard for post-conviction DNA analysis requests. The federal government also has a statute that covers DNA testing for inmates: 18 U.S.C. 3600.

Judges use the standards contained in these laws to determine whether the evidence will have enough of an impact on the previous determination of guilt to justify reopening proceedings in the case.

The specific standard that an applicant must meet varies from state to state. In general, most states require a showing of conclusive proof that the new DNA evidence would have altered the result of the first trial, but the exact standard will differ between jurisdictions.

In New York, for example, the new evidence must create a probability that had such evidence been received at the trial the verdict would have been more favorable to the defendant.

In California, on the other hand, the applicant must explain how DNA testing would raise a reasonable probability that the convicted person's verdict or sentence would be more favorable if the results of DNA testing had been available at the time of conviction.

The federal governments post-conviction DNA analysis statute requires that the new evidence must raise a reasonable probability that the applicant did not commit the offense.

The differences between the standards are subtle, but can have a huge impact on the outcome of an application to reopen a case for post-conviction DNA analysis.

Applicants must typically meet other requirements as well. Most often, there is some sort of time limit on how soon the inmate must apply for testing after the discovery of new evidence. Some states accept new evidence for some time after it is uncovered, but other states are fairly strict and require that inmates apply for a post-conviction DNA analysis very quickly after they learn of new evidence.

The Supreme Court and Post-Conviction DNA Analysis

The United States Supreme Court first addressed the issue of post-conviction DNA analysis in the case of District Attorneys Office v. Osborne. In that case, William Osborne, a man convicted of rape and attempted murder, claimed a constitutional right to subject DNA samples collected in the case to newer, more accurate DNA analysis. The results of the new test, he claimed, would help him to prove his actual innocence of the crime.

The Supreme Court denied the inmate the opportunity to test the DNA samples. A divided Court ruled, among other things, that there is no constitutional right to post-conviction DNA analysis. Chief Justice John Roberts, writing for the majority, argued that the recognition of a constitutional right would undermine the state laws that have already gone into effect.

The Supreme Court has also heard arguments in Skinner v. Switzer, a case that questions the appropriate proceeding under which to bring a request for post-conviction DNA analysis.

Compensation for the Wrongfully Convicted

The federal government, the District of Columbia and 27 states have laws that allow for the compensation of wrongfully convicted inmates. These laws provide compensation, paid for by the state, to prisoners who have been freed as a result of post-conviction DNA analysis.

Conclusion

DNA evidence is a powerful tool, not only during trial, but after a conviction as well. While the U.S. Supreme Court has declined to recognize a constitutional right to post-conviction DNA analysis, the laws of all but two states allow inmates to test DNA samples if the situation warrants it. A slim majority of states also provide compensation for the wrongfully convicted. 

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