High Court to Hear DNA Testing Case

Kirk Bloodsworth spoke to reporters in Annapolis in 1997, after DNA tests exonerated him. He had spent nine years in prison on a wrongful murder conviction.
Kirk Bloodsworth spoke to reporters in Annapolis in 1997, after DNA tests exonerated him. He had spent nine years in prison on a wrongful murder conviction. (By James M. Thresher -- The Washington Post)
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By Robert Barnes
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 22, 2009

Their stories are familiar, even if their names no longer resonate:

Bruce Godschalk, freed after spending 15 years in prison for rapes he did not commit; Jeffrey Deskovic, wrongly convicted for murder and released after spending nearly half his life behind bars; Kirk Bloodsworth, the Marylander who spent years on death row for murder before the true killer was identified.

They are among more than 200 people nationwide who were freed because DNA tests performed after their convictions showed they could not have committed the crimes.

And they now have joined civil rights groups, some current and former prosecutors, and a convicted Alaskan rapist to urge the Supreme Court to apply constitutional protections for the first time to what the prisoners' lawyers call "arguably the most important development in the history of forensic science: the advent of DNA testing."

They are opposed by victims rights groups; the vast majority of states, which have a patchwork of laws granting DNA access; and the federal government. The governments say that creating a constitutional right to the testing would infringe on states' rights, overwhelm them with frivolous demands and create an endless right of appeal for those convicted of the most violent crimes.

"These statutes reflect a careful balancing of the government's interests in finality, comity, and conservation of scarce resources," lawyers for the state of Alaska argue, "against a prisoner's interest in justice in those rare cases" when innocence could be proven by new forensic technology.

It is the Supreme Court's first case that confronts the dilemma of how to deal with DNA evidence, which former attorney general John D. Ashcroft called the "truth machine of law enforcement."

The increasingly accurate nature of biological testing has revolutionized criminal forensics, become a staple of television crime shows and, according to the Innocence Project, whose lawyers are representing convicted Alaskan rapist William G. Osborne, exonerated 232 prisoners, 17 of whom had been sentenced to death.

Osborne was convicted of the brutal rape and assault of a prostitute in a secluded area near the Anchorage International Airport in 1993. Two men had agreed to pay the woman for oral sex; instead, one forced her to perform fellatio while the second raped her.

The men ordered the woman to leave the car and lie facedown on the snow, but she ran instead. They beat her until she feigned death, and one man fired a shot that grazed her forehead.

Days later, police stopped Dexter Jackson on a driving infraction and found in his car a gun and knife belonging to the prostitute. Jackson implicated Osborne as his accomplice and the rapist. The woman later identified Osborne from a photo lineup as the "most likely" and "most familiar" suspect in the group.

She said he had used a blue condom, which police found at the scene. Testing on the semen was consistent with Osborne's DNA -- but also with 14.7 to 16 percent of all African Americans'. Osborne's lawyer, basing his defense on Osborne's claim of an alibi, did not seek a more discriminating test that could clear him -- or link him more conclusively to the crime.

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