William Osborne was accused of raping a prostitute at gunpoint, beating her with an ax handle, and leaving her for dead in the snow. His lawyer declined a DNA test of the evidence, thinking that it would confirm his guilt, says the Washington Post. The Alaska man was convicted and, spent more than a decade in prison, but he won a federal appeals court ruling seeking new DNA tests he now says can clear him. It is the first time an appellate court has ruled that an inmate has a federal constitutional right to such testing.
The Supreme Court agreed today to review the case in a case that pits the administration of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin against a Republican-appointed judge who accuses her state attorney general of being “obstinate” in blocking Osborne from testing the evidence used to convict him. The case has focused attention on a legal venue that has been largely exempted from the national movement toward post-conviction DNA testing: the federal courts. More than 220 wrongfully convicted inmates have been exonerated by DNA tests since 1989, including 17 on death row, according to the New York-based Innocence Project, which is representing Osborne. Nearly all DNA lawsuits are filed in state courts because 44 state laws allow inmates to petition for post-conviction testing. If the Supreme Court upheld a federal right to testing, it could put pressure on the remaining six states, including Alaska, to pass DNA laws.