DISTRICT ATTORNEY'S OFFICE FOR THE THIRD JUDICIAL DISTRICT v. OSBORNE

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Case Basics
Docket No. 
08-6
Petitioner 
District Attorney's Office for the Third Judicial District, et al.
Respondent 
William G. Osborne
Advocates
(Assistant Attorney General of Alaska, argued the cause for the petitioners)
(Deputy Solicitor General, Department of Justice, for the United States, as amicus curiae)
(argued the cause for the respondent)
Term:
Facts of the Case 

In March 1994, William Osborne was convicted of kidnapping, assault, and sexual assault in an Alaska state court. After his conviction, Mr. Osborne sought access to biological evidence that was used to convict him. He intended to use DNA testing that was not available at the time of the trial to prove he was not the source. The District Attorney's Office (D.A.O.) in Anchorage denied access. Mr. Osborne subsequently filed suit in a federal district court under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against the D.A.O. alleging that his 14th Amendment due process rights had been violated when he was denied post- conviction access to potentially exculpatory evidence.

The district court granted the D.A.O.'s motion to dismiss and Mr. Osborne appealed. The United States Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit reversed and remanded the case. On remand, the district court granted summary judgment for Mr. Osborne. The D.A.O. appealed arguing that Mr. Osborne need show the disclosure of evidence would "affirmatively prove that he is probably innocent" in order to gain access. Further, it argued that an oral confession given by Mr. Osborne after his conviction precluded him from pursuing post- conviction relief.

The United States Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit affirmed the district court. It held that Mr. Osborne had a limited due process right of access to the biological evidence for purposes of DNA testing. The court dismissed the D.A.O.'s arguments. It reasoned that Mr. Osborne need merely show that favorable DNA results would afford a "reasonable probability" that he could prevail in an action for post-conviction relief. Further, it found that Mr. Osborne's oral confession did not foreclose his pursuit of post-conviction relief, as exculpating evidence would raise serious questions about the validity of his confession.

Question 

1) May 42 U.S.C. § 1983 be used to obtain post-conviction access to evidence when there is no pending claim for which that evidence could be utilized?

2) Does the 14th Amendment's due process clause afford the plaintiff the right to obtain post-conviction access to evidence when plaintiff's intended claim is foreclosed by evidence obtained through confession?

Conclusion 
Decision: 5 votes for District Attorney's Office for the Third Judicial District, 4 vote(s) against
Legal provision: Due Process Clause

Maybe and no. The Supreme Court held that even assuming that Mr. Osborne could pursue his claims using § 1983, he had no constitutional right to obtain post-conviction access to the state's DNA evidence used against him at trial. With Chief Justice John G. Roberts writing for the majority and joined by Justices Antonin G. Scalia, Anthony M. Kennedy, and Clarence Thomas, the Court deferred to the legislative branch in establishing rules by which convicts can obtain DNA evidence to pursue postconviction relief. It recognized that while the Alaska legislature had yet to establish such procedures, its court system was making progress. Moreover, the Court held that Mr. Osborne's due process rights were not violated, reasoning that Alaska's postconviction relief procedures were adequate.

Justice Alito also wrote a separate concurring opinion and was joined by Justice Kennedy and in part by Justice Thomas. He agreed with the majority's opinion, but also stated that Mr. Osborne's claim failed for two other reasons. First, he argued that § 1983 was an inappropriate mechanism for pursuing a federal constitutional right claim when the claim had not been exhausted at the state court level. Second, he argued that Mr. Osborne's claim should be rejected because a defendant who chooses not to have DNA testing done at the trial level for tactical reasons should not have access to such testing in pursuing postconviction relief. Justice John Paul Stevens wrote a separate dissenting opinion and was joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen G. Breyer, and in part by Justice David H. Souter. He strongly disagreed with the majority holding that prevented Mr. Osborne from having access to evidence that could conclusively prove his guilt or innocence, and thus could ensure justice had been achieved. Justice Souter also dissented. He argued that Alaska had failed to provide sufficiently effective postconviction relief procedures to satisfy the Due Process Clause of the Constitution and thus Mr. Osborne should have had access to the DNA evidence he sought.

Cite this Page
DISTRICT ATTORNEY'S OFFICE FOR THE THIRD JUDICIAL DISTRICT v. OSBORNE. The Oyez Project at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law. 02 September 2014. <http://www.oyez.org/cases/2000-2009/2008/2008_08_6/>.
DISTRICT ATTORNEY'S OFFICE FOR THE THIRD JUDICIAL DISTRICT v. OSBORNE, The Oyez Project at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law, http://www.oyez.org/cases/2000-2009/2008/2008_08_6/ (last visited September 2, 2014).
"DISTRICT ATTORNEY'S OFFICE FOR THE THIRD JUDICIAL DISTRICT v. OSBORNE," The Oyez Project at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law, accessed September 2, 2014, http://www.oyez.org/cases/2000-2009/2008/2008_08_6/.