US Attorney General Eric Holder [official website] instructed federal prosecutors on Thursday to use DNA evidence as much as possible [press release], in a reversal of Bush administration policy. Among the changes, defendants who plead guilty will no longer have to waive their right to DNA evidence under the Innocence Protection Act of 2004 [text]. The memo also calls for the collection of DNA from all federal arrestees. Holder said in the press release that DNA collection, when available, is the most helpful ways to find facts:
DNA evidence is one of the most powerful tools available to the criminal justice system, and these new steps will ensure the department can use DNA to the greatest extent possible to solve crimes and ensure the guilty are convicted. Improving both the collection and the use of DNA evidence will help law enforcement and prosecutors keep communities safe."The collection of DNA from federal arrestees has already been enacted, but Holder stressed it as a priority.
Last month, the US Supreme Court heard oral arguments [JURIST report] in Skinner v. Switzer on a convicted prisoner's right to seek access to DNA testing. The issue is whether a convicted prisoner seeking access to biological evidence for DNA testing may assert a civil rights claim under § 1983 or if such a claim is cognizable only under a writ of habeas corpus. The US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit affirmed a district court decision to dismiss Skinner's § 1983 claim seeking access to DNA evidence that may prove his innocence in the murders for which he is now sentenced to death, stating that relief could only be sought through habeas corpus. Last year, the Supreme Court ruled in District Attorney's Office v. Osborne [Cornell LII backgrounder; JURIST report] that a defendant does not have the right to obtain post-conviction access to the state’s biological evidence in order to do DNA testing.