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Friday, June 19, 2009

DA's Office v. Osborne: Bad Facts Make Tough Cases

I've only had a chance to read the SCt's opinion in DA's Office v. Osborne rather quickly, but I thought I'd share a tentative reaction or two and invite some conversation on the topic. (You can get the opinion here, and Liptak's got a summary of the issues here.)  In this case, the Court's conservative majority declined the invitation to constitutionalize under the Due Process Clause a right to gain access to DNA evidence via a Section 1983 claim. 

I'm not a fed cts scholar so I'll leave aside the issue of whether Osborne ought to have pursued his claim through habeas instead of 1983. (My sense is that Alito's concurring opinion has the better argument as to why it should be done through habeas.)  But getting to the merits, my view is that the unsavory facts of Osborne's case will be used to cabin the scope of the holding. On better facts, and perhaps in a more appealing procedural posture, at least Kennedy will be likely to come around and recognize the rights of the actually innocent in post-conviction scenarios.

Osborne's plausible legal request was hampered, in other words, by the facts that a) he had already been convicted for a subsequent home invasion; b) he had admitted to his participation in the crime during his efforts to seek parole (which put defendants in a tough situation by asking them to accept responsibility); and c) most importantly, his lawyer declined to get more accurate forms of DNA testing during the trial b/c she wanted to take advantage of the imprecision of the DNA testing that was ordered to create reasonable doubt. In other words, she strategically declined more advanced testing (despite her client Osborne's apparent importunations that more sophisticated) because she thought enhanced testing would establish her client's guilt rather than preserve the possibility of a mistaken identity theory that she argued to the jury.

These bad facts and the potential biases created by them made the case a bad one in terms of establishing doctrine, but my sense is that lower courts with more favorable factual situations will at least be able to cabin the thrust of the Osborne case by pointing to the dicta in the majority opinion by Roberts that emphasizes that actual innocence claims are still possible.  This is a relief, for reasons I explain below the fold.
   In my forthcoming piece on Panetti and the future of the Eighth Amendment, I argue that the Court's reasoning in Panetti v. Quarterman commits itself implicitly to both communicative retributivism and negative retributivism.  The negative retributivism commitment in punishment theory basically says the state may not punish a defendant if she is not guilty, and if she is guilty then she may only be punished to the extent her guilt permits the punishment. In the context of doctrine, obviously concerns of finality are allowed to play a role in crafting decision rules for judges and other state actors.  But those concerns cannot preclude reasonable attempts by convicted persons to have newly discovered evidence that is highly probative and was earlier unavailable be considered by the state--or at least, that's what I argue. The problem with Osborne's case is that his facts look uncomfortably close to one where a defendant is trying to, as Justice Alito noted, game the system. (In Panetti, Kennedy was joined by the four moderate/liberals; in Osborne, Kennedy voted with the traditionally more conservative side of the court.) 

My hope then is that litigants better situated than Osborne will be able to access DNA evidence by bringing a Panetti-inspired Eighth Amendment claim--but I don't really have a dog in the hunt regarding whether it's procedurally managed through habeas or 1983. It seems as if the habeas strategy will be more likely to garner votes. As to the substance, whether it's done through the Eighth Amendment or due process, my sense is that the Osborne case will definitely not be the Court's final word on access to DNA testing and that lower courts will be able to work around Osborne based on the bad facts here.  

All that said, I'm curious to hear what Steve and Howard have to say on the procedural stuff, and what your reactions to the case were also.

Posted by Administrators on June 19, 2009 at 03:25 PM in Constitutional thoughts, Criminal Law, Dan Markel | Permalink


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Yeah, one doesn't normally think of Souter as the kind of Justice who would write a "this is my legacy" opinion, but it did have that kind of feel, particularly as the meat of it is purely unnecessary dicta; he says yes to Osborne on procedural due process, says that he doesn't think it necessary to decide on substantive one way or the other, and then offers this beautiful essay on how he would have decided the issue he's choosing not to decide on, only to conclude that, in spite of all his kind words on behalf of judicial restraint, he probably would have ruled in favor of Osborne on substantive grounds - if the case called for a decision on that point. It almost feels as if he's saying to his party that, despite all their accusations of turncoating over the years, he really was a Burkean conservative/New England Republican all along.

Posted by: Asher | Jun 20, 2009 7:14:01 PM

I was struck by Souter's opinion too. Shades of his Glucksberg opinion and has a "this is my legacy" flavor.

As to bad facts, aside from the procedural posture (more relevant) , I'm unsure why this should matter. A rule was set forth here. It will apply to more sympathetic claimants as well.

I know, one has to be realistic about these things.

Posted by: Joe | Jun 20, 2009 11:45:48 AM

You can also add to your list of bad facts the confusion over whether Osborne ever did seek a form of testing that wasn't available at the trial through state discovery procedures. The dissent claims he did, but the majority claims that all Alaska ever denied Osborne was an opportunity to use a more advanced type of testing that was available at the time of the trial. I was also quite struck by Souter's paean to the wisdom of going slow.

Posted by: Asher | Jun 20, 2009 5:24:29 AM

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