WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court ruled Thursday that prisoners have no constitutional right to DNA testing that might prove their innocence long after their convictions.
In the court's first examination of how to deal with the rapidly evolving field of DNA evidence, the court's conservative majority prevailed in ruling against establishing a post-conviction constitutional right to DNA evidence.
Chief Justice John G. Roberts wrote for the majority and said that almost every state and Congress had provided ways for prisoners to get testing that might prove their innocence. This is not the time for federal courts to get involved in the process, he said.
"The elected governments of the states are actively confronting the challenges DNA technology poses to our criminal justice systems and our traditional notions of finality, as well as the opportunities it affords," Roberts wrote. "To suddenly constitutionalize this area would short-circuit what looks to be a prompt and considered legislative response."
Roberts acknowledged that Alaska is one of a handful of states that has not passed such a law, but he said the state's courts provide a way for prisoners to get access to DNA evidence.
But that has not helped William G. Osborne, who was convicted of the rape and assault of a prostitute in a secluded area near Anchorage International Airport in 1993. Osborne wanted to pay for a more advanced test on semen found in a condom at the crime scene, one that prosecutors agree would almost definitively prove his guilt or innocence.
Justice John Paul Stevens said Alaska's refusal to allow the testing is the reason the court should have found there is a constitutional right.
Those representing Osborne, who at times has both professed his innocence and confessed to the crime, said there is too much variance even in the states that have provided DNA testing.
The Innocence Project, whose lawyers represented Osborne, said DNA testing has exonerated 232 prisoners, 17 of whom had been sentenced to death.