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Inmates can present DNA evidence

In House v Bell, High Court finds that DNA evidence that tends to exonerate defendants can be admitted in quest for new trial.

DNA evidence cannot only be used to prove guilt, it can also be used to exonerate those convicted long ago, the Supreme Court held today (PDF). The 5-3 decision expanded inmates' ability to challenge convictions in federal court based on DNA evidence, the Washington Post reports.

The decision comes from the case of Paul Gregory House, convicted 20 years ago of rape and murder in Tennessee. House produced DNA evidence that raised serious questions about his involvement in the rape, and thus the murder.

House sought a new trial. A U.S. District Court denied a hearing to House, however, saying that House had not demonstrated, as required under previous rulings, that the situation probably resulted in the "conviction of one who is actually innocent."

Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, writing for the court, said the lower court had placed too great a burden on the defendant. The court's function, he wrote, "is not to make an independent factual determination about what likely occurred, but rather to assess the likely impact of the evidence on reasonable jurors."

House did not need to show "absolute certainty" of innocence, Kennedy wrote, only to "demonstrate that more likely than not, in light of the new evidence, no reasonable juror would find him guilty beyond a reasonable doubt."

The new evidence, Kennedy said, must be considered in its broadest possible light as well. "The inquiry requires the federal court to assess how reasonable jurors would react to the overall, newly supplemented record" as a whole.

In this case, "motive was key," Kennedy wrote. The prosecution's theory was that House murdered the victim in the course of raping her. If DNA shows he was not the rapist, the prosecution would have to establish an entirely different motive.

House can now go to a lower federal court and argue that he deserves a new trial.