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Constitutional Right of Access to DNA Evidence

The Second District Court in New York, in the case of McKithen v. Brown, 565 F. Supp. 2d 440 (E.D.N.Y 2008) issued a lengthy opinion (53 pages) considering an inmate's constitutional right to have access to DNA evidence.

The case involved a conviction for attempted murder in which the inmate had been found guilty of attempting to kill his wife by stabbing her in their home. The appeal was completed and efforts taken under New York state law to get access to DNA evidence following his conviction were affirmed on appeal. Defendant filed a motion pursuant to 43 U.S.C. $ 1883, asking the federal court to require the state to provide the knife so that DNA evidence could be examined. The inmate contended that the evidence would show that his wife's blood was not on the knife; and, therefore, this evidence would be important to show that she had lied about the incident.

In considering the complex matters involved in post-conviction relief, the court considered certain theories that are fundamental to the American Justice System. The District Court noted that "an overriding concern for innocence is a central preoccupation of our constitutional tradition." McKitchen at 453. The court also cited the supreme court case, Foucha v. Louisiana, 504 U.S. 71, 80 (1992), which stated "[f]reedom from bodily restraint has always been at the core of the liberty protected by the Due Process Clause from arbitrary governmental action." Id.

The Second District goes on to analyze numerous cases that are placed with severe limitations on this basic principle. It noted that an inmate's liberty interest in release is extinguished by a valid conviction and cited to the case of Ohio Adult Parole Authority v. Woodard, 523 U.S. 272 (1998). It noted that there is an extremely high burden on an inmate if he is seeking constitutional relief based upon actual innocence.

The District Court, however, went on to note that there is more than just actual innocence which comes into play. The court noted that an inmate's liberty interest in meaningful access to clemency mechanisms is a standard which requires less justified release than would be required to meet the "extraordinarily high" threshold of actual innocence.

The court further stated:

Thus, in my view, when evidence of innocence is so probative that, if it were in the defendant's possession, erroneous interference with the defendant's use of the evidence would deprive the defendant of a constitutional right relating to guilt or innocence, the prosecutor's duty to seek justice imposes an affirmative obligation to provide a defendant with that evidence. Accordingly, even if the Petition Clause generally imposes no affirmative obligation on the government, the duty to seek justice imposes an obligation on a prosecutor to provide evidence of such significance that, if a prisoner had it and was erroneously deprived of its use, the prisoner would be deprived of his right to meaningful access to existing executive clemency mechanisms.

McKithen v. Brown, 565 F. Supp. 2d at 466.

This lengthy opinion is worth reviewing for anyone who is concerned about an inmate's access to DNA evidence, even though the request for the evidence may not be strong enough to justify the high threshold of actual innocence.