Herald-Leader Editorial

Court rulings uphold fairness; Cases on DNA tests, Miranda rights

Cases on DNA tests, Miranda rights

April 30, 2013 

The right of Kentuckians to fair treatment by the police and courts is stronger now, thanks to the state Supreme Court.

In rulings last week, the high court also gave a welcome nudge to the cause of accountability in government.

The rulings strengthen access to DNA testing for those convicted of crimes and clarify that the Constitution's protection against self-incrimination applies to students being questioned at school.

The court was unanimous in its rebuke of prosecutors who tried to block two prisoners, in for life, from challenging their convictions for a murder that was committed before DNA evidence was available.

Writing for his colleagues, Justice Bill Cunningham said the court was "mystified, if not amazed" that prosecutors had "such little interest in the possibility that DNA testing might lead to the prosecution and conviction of a guilty person ... now at large upon the Commonwealth."

Attorney General Jack Conway's office supported the Meade County commonwealth attorney's attempts to deny defense requests to test three hairs found in the victim's hand, saying the new evidence would at best implicate a third person, rather than exonerate the two already convicted.

The legislature this year enacted a law making DNA testing available to more than just inmates on Death Row, which should help avoid such injustices in the future.

Evidence in criminal trials belongs to the state, Cunningham wrote, adding that prosecutors are obligated to protect "the integrity of evidence, not to hoard it."

The justices split 4-3 on whether a Nelson County student should have been told he had the right to an attorney and to remain silent before being questioned by an assistant principal with an armed deputy sheriff present in a closed room.

While the school safety concerns raised by the dissenters are understandable, given recent events, they also are overblown.

As two justices noted, the obligation to tell potential suspects of their rights can be waived when public safety is at risk, such as when authorities believe there is a gun on school grounds.

The case involved a juvenile who admitted to sharing with classmates a couple of pain pills he had received after a wisdom tooth extraction. He was later convicted in circuit court of dispensing a controlled substance, a felony, and sentenced to 45 days in jail.

His confession was the sole basis for his conviction, and he was not told until after he confessed that he could be charged with a crime, wrote Justice Mary Noble.

"No reasonable student, even the vast majority of 17-year-olds, would have believed that he was at liberty to remain silent or to leave," Noble wrote..

"If he had been an adult under these same circumstances, there is no question that the statements would not have been admissible under Miranda," the landmark Supreme Court ruling that prohibits the use of evidence obtained from a defendant who has not voluntarily waived his right to free counsel.

In a 3-3 ruling the court upheld an order requiring the Cabinet for Health and Family Services to release its records of fatal child abuse cases. (One justice did not participate.)

The closeness of the decisions reveals that concerns about the privacy of victims, siblings and informants linger, concerns that the Kentucky Open Records Act already accommodates.

But, in the end, transparency and accountability will do far more to protect innocents than will secrecy and the shame that secrecy wrongly implies — just as the rights of all are safer when the courts wisely protect the rights of juveniles and prisoners.

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