Fourteenth Amendment, Section 1:
All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.
An appeal from a judgment of conviction is not a matter of absolute right, independently of constitutional or statutory provisions allowing such appeal. A review by an appellate court of the final judgment in a criminal case, however grave the offense of which the accused is convicted, was not at common law and is not now a necessary element of due process of law. It is wholly within the discretion of the State to allow or not to allow such a review. 1 This holding has been reaffirmed, 2 although the Court has also held that, when a state does provide appellate review, it may not so condition the privilege as to deny it irrationally to some persons, such as indigents. 3
A state is not free, however, to have no corrective process in which defendants may pursue remedies for federal constitutional violations. In Frank v. Mangum, 4 the Court asserted that a conviction obtained in a mob-dominated trial was contrary to due process:
if the State, supplying no corrective process, carries into execution a judgment of death or imprisonment based upon a verdict thus produced by mob domination, the State deprives the accused of his life or liberty without due process of law. Consequently, the Court has stated numerous times that the absence of some form of corrective process when the convicted defendant alleges a federal constitutional violation contravenes the Fourteenth Amendment, 5 and the Court has held that to burden this process, such as by limiting the right to petition for habeas corpus, is to deny the convicted defendant his constitutional rights. 6
The mode by which federal constitutional rights are to be vindicated after conviction is for the government concerned to determine.
Wide discretion must be left to the States for the manner of adjudicating a claim that a conviction is unconstitutional. States are free to devise their own systems of review in criminal cases. A State may decide whether to have direct appeals in such cases, and if so under what circumstances. . . . In respecting the duty laid upon them . . . States have a wide choice of remedies. A State may provide that the protection of rights granted by the Federal Constitution be sought through the writ of habeas corpus or coram nobis. It may use each of these ancient writs in its common law scope, or it may put them to new uses; or it may afford remedy by a simple motion brought either in the court of original conviction or at the place of detention. . . . So long as the rights under the United States Constitution may be pursued, it is for a State and not for this Court to define the mode by which they may be vindicated. 7 If a state provides a mode of redress, then a defendant must first exhaust that mode. If he is unsuccessful, or if a state does not provide an adequate mode of redress, then the defendant may petition a federal court for relief through a writ of habeas corpus. 8
When appellate or other corrective process is made available, because it is no less a part of the process of law under which a defendant is held in custody, it becomes subject to scrutiny for any alleged unconstitutional deprivation of life or liberty. At first, the Court seemed content to assume that, when a state appellate process formally appeared to be sufficient to correct constitutional errors committed by the trial court, the conclusion by the appellate court that the trial court’s sentence of execution should be affirmed was ample assurance that life would not be forfeited without due process of law. 9 But, in Moore v. Dempsey, 10 while insisting that it was not departing from precedent, the Court directed a federal district court in which petitioners had sought a writ of habeas corpus to make an independent investigation of the facts alleged by the petitioners – mob domination of their trial – notwithstanding that the state appellate court had ruled against the legal sufficiency of these same allegations. Indubitably, Moore marked the abandonment of the Supreme Court’s deference, founded upon considerations of comity, to decisions of state appellate tribunals on issues of constitutionality, and the proclamation of its intention no longer to treat as virtually conclusive pronouncements by the latter that proceedings in a trial court were fair, an abandonment soon made even clearer in Brown v. Mississippi 11 and now taken for granted.
The Court has held, however, that the Due Process Clause does not provide convicted persons a right to postconviction access to the state's evidence for DNA testing. 12 Chief Justice Roberts, in a five-to-four decision, noted that 46 states had enacted statutes dealing specifically with access to DNA evidence, and that the Federal Government had enacted a statute that allows federal prisoners to move for court-ordered DNA testing under specified conditions. Even the states that had not enacted statutes dealing specifically with access to DNA evidence must, under the Due Process Clause, provide adequate postconviction relief procedures. The Court, therefore, saw
no reason to constitutionalize the issue. 13 It also expressed concern that
[e]stablishing a freestanding right to access DNA evidence for testing would force us to act as policymakers . . . . We would soon have to decide if there is a constitutional obligation to preserve forensic evidence that might later be tested. If so, for how long? Would it be different for different types of evidence? Would the State also have some obligation to gather such evidence in the first place? How much, and when? 14