Why Does the Supreme Court Hate Science? 

The Supreme Court announced last Thursday that, by a 5 to 4 vote — as if the court could vote by any other margin — it had decided that prisoners have no constitutional right to DNA testing in order to clear their convictions. You know, despite that whole “due process” thing in, what’s it called? Oh, right, the Constitution.

It’s just another example of the Right rejecting science for faith, though this time it isn’t about God but the workings of the criminal justice system. (Though some conservatives see American legal traditions as rooted in the divine — that God and law are the same.)

Forty-six states have passed laws that allow varying degrees of access to DNA evidence but four do not, including Alaska (duh, Palin), the setting for this suit. William Osborne, convicted 15 years ago of kidnapping and sexual assault, wants access to his case’s DNA evidence — the testing will be done at no expense to the state — to clear his name. (He was paroled last year, though he was recently convicted for home invasion. Oh, why are figureheads always such antiheroes?) But the state won’t give it to him. And neither will the Supreme Court.

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Chief Justice Roberts’ reasoning is that the states should handle this issue, and that were the judicial branch to intervene, it “would short-circuit what looks to be a prompt and considered legislative response."

What the hell is he talking about? Where innocent people in jail are concerned, we shouldn’t be buying time so the states can move at their own pace and preserve their self-esteem by coming to their own conclusions without federal bullying. Palin's Alaska — as well as Massachusetts, Alabama and Oklahoma — are way behind the times on this morally clear-cut issue. If the Court acts, more innocent people could be freed from jail. There’s no overwhelming downside here. Correcting the mistakes made by our flawed justice system ought to be among the judiciary’s primary concerns, as those mistakes undermine the most basic principle — freedom — on which our country operates.

The majority opinion went on to voice a fear that “DNA’s power to prove innocence” could “unnecessarily overthrow… the established criminal justice system.” Definitive conclusions of guilt and innocence cannot negatively impact the justice system; they can only highlight its flaws — which is a good thing. As Americans, we should always be working to perfect our imperfect systems. It’s indisputable that the wrongly convicted suffer incarceration across the country. The Innocence Project, a non-profit legal clinic that has spearheaded the DNA testing movement in recent years and represented Mr. Osborne, has worked on 240 cases in which testing has exonerated prisoners. (In 43 percent of those cases, it even identified the real criminal.) If that’s a measure of the established criminal justice system’s efficacy, that system deserves to be overthrown. Necessarily.

But conservatives like Roberts, and especially Alito, apparently don’t believe in science: they follow their faith. The same impetuses that drive reactionaries to promote creationism over evolution — blind ignorance, deaf denial—influenced this decision as well: faith in the criminal justice system trumps overwhelming evidence, of the scientific kind, to its failures.

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It’s Justice Alito’s reasoning that’s the most insulting. Because Osborne’s attorney declined one form of testing at her client’s trial, and he requested a different form of testing from prison, Alito accused the convict of “play[ing] games.” He went on to write:

“After conviction, with nothing more to lose, the defendant could demand DNA testing in the hope that some happy accident — for example, the degradation or contamination of the evidence — would provide the basis for seeking post-conviction relief.” Alito’s fantasy is devoid of logic, as though, because DNA testing might go possibly wrong, maybe, sometime, possibly somewhere, we can’t provide defendants with access to that evidence.

For Alito, science is suspect; he goes on to write that DNA testing “often fails to provide absolute proof of anything.” Since when? Two hundred and forty exonerated prisoners. Alito regards science as a false idol, as though he resides in a Bush-bubble (where evolution is just a “theory” with no more claim to truth than intelligent design?) Contrast his primitivism to Justice Stevens, who sensibly declared in his opinion that DNA testing is “uniquely precise." You know, because it has science on its side. Like, facts.

What this ultimately boils down to is that the Court’s right-wingers would rather have 240 innocent people in jail than let one guilty man go free. (Someone should at least have made Roberts, Alito, and the rest of the court’s conservative, tough-on-crime oligarchy rent The Shawshank Redemption before they made such a boneheaded decision.) To get even more reductive, Thursday’s decision comes down to this: The United States of America does not believe you have the right to get out of jail even if you didn’t commit the crime that put you there. Oh wait — Guantana-what?


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