In yet another case, DNA evidence has suggested the innocence of a man who has spent 11 years and counting in maximum security prison for a serious crime. Joseph Buffey, like some 10 percent of the hundreds of individuals exonerated by DNA testing, pleaded guilty in a rape and robbery case that DNA evidence links to another individual. Buffey was persuaded to take a plea by his lawyer, who said he wrongly assumed Buffey had committed the crime, and thought a defendant as young as 19 would get no more than a 10-year sentence. Buffey was sentenced to 70 years in prison.
But what’s most confounding about Buffey’s case is that it took 18 months of litigation by the nation’s top wrongful conviction lawyers to even secure the DNA testing. From the New York Times:
The Innocence Project lawyers got involved in this case after Mr. Buffey sent them a letter a few years ago. When they ran the test on the victim’s rape kit in the spring of 2011 and it showed that it was not Mr. Buffey’s DNA present at the crime scene, they asked to run the results through the West Virginia database of felons to see if another match existed. The judge approved, but the prosecutor refused, saying that the laboratory that had done the testing was not certified by the state. The judge then said he did not have the authority to order the state to violate its own rules.
The Innocence Project offered to run the test again through a certified lab. But the prosecutor turned down the request, saying there was “no good reason to do so” and adding, “the state does not believe such testing will or can prove the defendant’s innocence after his guilty plea.”
The judge ordered the test to go forward. The state again resisted but a month ago backed down.
Unfortunately, the vast majority of defendants are persuaded to take guilty pleas in a system increasingly designed to incentivize deals over trial. And most defendants don’t have the advantage of leading experts on wrongful conviction to litigate an appeal on their behalf. But even those like Duffey who do face immense obstacles to even access available DNA evidence. In a disheartening 2009 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that a defendant who was willing to pay for a DNA test at his own expense was not entitled to the test. Allowing William Osburne to prove his potential innocence, Chief Justice John G. Roberts said, risks “unnecessarily overthrowing the established system of criminal justice.”
The prosecutor in Buffey’s case expressed a similar attitude, saying that even DNA evidence linked to another individual and not Buffey “only tells us that someone else took part.” The victim’s testimony that there was only one attacker casts serious doubt on Romano’s assertion. But whether or not he is right should not have any bearing on a prosecutor’s willingness to provide the defendant, the judge and the jury with definitive, scientific information like DNA evidence.
In a system that study after study has shown is fraught with bias and error, DNA evidence should be a welcome bastion of accuracy. But because it is the government that investigates crimes, the prosecutors are the gatekeepers to evidence that should be equally available to both parties. And while some individual prosecutors are supportive of greater DNA access, law enforcers have an institutional interest in winning their cases. Only nine states have laws granting defense lawyers access to a national DNA database. As National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers President Steven Benjamin said, “Juries expect the defense to be able to prove that if your client didn’t do it, who did? Science doesn’t belong to the government, but they act like it does.”