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U.S. Supreme Court

SCOTUS quotes Innocence Project founders’ book in DNA opinion; did ellipses change the point?

Posted Jun 12, 2013 6:15 AM CDT
By Debra Cassens Weiss

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Two ellipses in a quote in a U.S. Supreme Court opinion are getting some closer scrutiny.

Justice Anthony M. Kennedy bolstered his majority decision upholding DNA testing for arrestees last week with a quote from a book called Actual Innocence, written by the founders of the Innocence Project, the New York Times reports. The project uses DNA testing to help free the wrongly convicted.

The shortened quote was not “especially punctilious,” the Times says. One of the authors, Peter Neufeld, tells the Times that the shortened passage wrongly suggests the writers were endorsing arrestee databases, when they were actually promoting the testing of crime scene evidence.

Here is the quote from the book in Kennedy’s opinion, with the ellipses and brackets he used: “[P]rompt [DNA] testing ... would speed up apprehension of criminals before they commit additional crimes, and prevent the grotesque detention of ... innocent people.”

According to the Times, “Those first three dots covered a lot of ground. They took the place of more than six sentences and suggested a different point than the one the authors were making. The original passage concerned evidence collected at crime scenes, not from people who might be connected to it.”

The second three dots covered only two omitted words: “thousands of.” The phrase without the ellipses would read “the grotesque detention of thousands of innocent people.” The Times offers a reason for this omission: “Justice Kennedy apparently did not want to endorse the possibility that the criminal justice system had such widespread shortcomings,” the story says.

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