The Right Remedy for the Wrongly Convicted: Judicial Sanctions for Destruction of DNA Evidence
Many state innocence protection statutes give courts the power to impose appropriate sanctions when biological evidence needed for postconviction DNA testing is wrongly destroyed by the government. Constitutional claims based on wrongful evidence destruction are governed by the virtually insurmountable “bad faith” standard articulated in Arizona v. Youngblood. The wrongful destruction of DNA evidence in contravention of state innocence protection laws, however, should be governed by the standards used to adjudicate other “access to evidence” violations in criminal cases, including disclosures mandated by the rules of criminal procedure, the Jencks Act, and Brady v. Maryland. Under the “access to evidence” sanctions analysis, courts must balance the degree of government culpability in the destruction, the degree of prejudice to the defense, and the strength of the government’s case. In applying this analysis to the wrongful destruction of evidence needed for postconviction DNA testing, courts should give due weight to the exclusive power of DNA evidence to discredit other forms of evidence and prove identity to a scientific certainty. Further, in evaluating the strength of the government’s evidence at trial, courts must carefully scrutinize guilt determinations based largely or exclusively on evidence that has been the predominate cause of wrongful convictions, including stranger eyewitness identifications, non-DNA forensic evidence, uncorroborated confessions, and jailhouse informant testimony. Applying these critical lessons learned from over 200 exonerations to the sanctions determination, appropriate sanctions for the wrongful destruction of DNA evidence include a sentence reduction, a new trial, or dismissal.