By now, many readers of this blog know that the U.S. Supreme Court ruled last month that people convicted of a crime have no constitutional right to DNA testing to prove their innocence, after they are convicted. What most people didn’t know until then, however, is that Massachusetts is one of only three states out of fifty that does not already have a law allowing people the right to try to prove their innocence, post-conviction, via DNA testing. The other two states are Alaska and Oklahoma. It’s baffling why Massachusetts, a state routinely considered progressive, has not taken any action on this issue.
In June, the U.S. Supreme Court, in a 5-4 ruling, declared that prisoners don’t have a constitutional right to submit DNA testing after their convictions, even if the convict is willing to pay for the tests himself. The majority’s reasoning was that the court should not to “constitutionalize” this right, when states appear to be already taking care of the issue. Chief Justice John Roberts wrote that “a criminal defendant proven guilty after a fair trial does not have the same liberty interests as a free man.” As a Massachusetts criminal defense attorney, I find that reasoning very troubling, and take profound issue with this ruling. It is plainly misguided. However, the state legislature in Massachusetts should also be faulted for not having acted in the past to join the 47 other level-headed states in enacting a measure to ensure the constitutional right of a convict to offer DNA testing evidence after a conviction, in an effort to prove their innocence.
The justices could have embraced a nationwide solution to wrongful convictions, and they chose not to. Over two hundred years ago, the framers of the Constitution could obviously never have foreseen the arrival of DNA testing. Had they been able to, it’s unthinkable that they would not have guaranteed a man the scientific chance to prove his own innocence. The framers of our Constitution were thinkers who justifiably viewed the power of government to imprison citizens with guarded skepticism. If a scientific method exists that can irrefutably establish guilt or innocence, it’s plainly ludicrous not to allow access to it. It isn’t a stretch to assume that most convicts who seek post-conviction DNA testing are probably innocent. How many guilty people are likely to demand that the proof that convicted them, become scientifically unquestionable?
According to The Innocence Project, an organization that advocates for people who say they have been wrongly convicted, DNA testing has exonerated 240 innocent people in the United States to date. At least 17 of those people had been on death row. These innocent people served an average of 12 years in prison for crimes they didn’t commit. Have you ever seen news footage of someone who has been released from years of imprisonment, thanks to DNA evidence that was admitted after trial? I’ve not only seen this in the news, I’ve met these people. They are the faces of exoneration. They’re people like you and me – and they were arrested, convicted and thrown in prison for crimes they didn’t commit. Crimes as serious as murder, to drug offenses, to rape, to simple assault and battery.
These wrongful convictions make clear that our judicial system is not infallible. A constitutional right to DNA testing in Massachusetts is needed, and if the Supreme Court’s ruling requires states to take the lead on this issue, then the Massachusetts legislature should do so, and fast. However, in the event you already don’t know, the Massachusetts legislature isn’t known for working overtime, let alone working. So if you agree that anyone convicted of a criminal offense in Massachusetts should have the right to submit evidence of DNA testing after they have been convicted, contact your legislator now.
Or someday you or someone you know could find yourself wrongfully convicted, with no way to free yourself though DNA evidence. And if you doubt that could happen to you, I can introduce you to some people who will convince you otherwise.