In Joseph Buffey Case, WV Supreme Court of Appeals Issues Precedent-Setting Ruling around Prosecution’s Obligation to Disclose Exculpatory Evidence During Plea Negotiations
High court rules Buffey’s due process rights were violated, allows him to withdraw 2002 guilty plea in rape, robbery he has always maintained he did not commit
Contact: Nick Moroni,
(Clarksburg, WV) – The Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia ruled on Tuesday that Joseph Buffey’s constitutional rights were violated in 2002 when the prosecution offered him a plea deal without disclosing to Buffey’s defense attorney that the state was in possession of DNA evidence favorable to his defense. Buffey is currently incarcerated for the rape and robbery of an elderly woman which DNA evidence proves he did not commit.
In Tuesday’s case, the Supreme Court of Appeals ruled that a defendant’s constitutional due process rights, as outlined in
Brady vs. Maryland
, extend to the plea negotiation stage. That is, the prosecution has a duty to disclose exculpatory evidence to a defendant at the plea bargaining stage, instead of at trial, the latter point being more clearly defined in the U. S. Supreme Court’s caselaw since Brady.
“In this landmark decision, West Virginia’s high court not only corrected a grave injustice that had occurred in its own criminal courts, but became a leading voice in a national conversation about innocence and guilty pleas that is taking place all over the country,” said Nina Morrison, Senior Staff Attorney at the Innocence Project, which has represented Buffey for more than five years. The Innocence Project is affiliated with Cardozo Law School.
“We are gratified that our state’s high court issued such a strong and powerful opinion on the right to due process in West Virginia. This brings us one important step closer to justice for Joe Buffey,” said Allan N. Karlin, Mr. Buffey’s Morgantown, WV-based co-counsel, who is representing Mr. Buffey pro bono along with Nina Morrison and Barry Scheck of the Innocence Project.
Today’s ruling is precedent-setting because it could have a profound impact on how guilty pleas are obtained and also could prevent innocent people from pleading guilty to crimes they did not commit due to fear that they might otherwise face a much more severe sentence. This is significant, the Supreme Court of Appeals wrote, because the criminal justice system today consists mostly of pleas, not trials, and because the system as a whole benefits when defendants have access to exculpatory evidence at all stages of a criminal prosecution. Roughly 10 percent of the nation’s 333 wrongful convictions proven by DNA evidence involved innocent people who plead guilty, whether due to coercive plea-bargaining, excessive schemes, ineffective lawyers or false confessions, or a combination of these factors. Failure to disclose material exculpatory evidence exacerbates all of these problems.
In Buffey’s case, the State was in possession of DNA test results showing that another man had deposited sperm during the crime, with the report issued six weeks prior to Buffey’s final plea hearing. The prosecution’s failure to turn over this evidence to Buffey’s attorney was a violation of his due process rights, the Supreme Court of Appeals ruled, as Buffey’s attorney would not have urged him to plead guilty had he possessed this information. The prosecution’s offer was time-limited and also offered to drop charges in non-violent burglaries to which Buffey had been linked. On his lawyer’s recommendation, Buffey did so, but always maintained his innocence of the rape and robbery of the elderly woman and continued to ask about the DNA results long after his plea was final.
Additional DNA testing of crime scene evidence in 2012 was entered into the FBI’s national DNA database, known as CODIS, and not only excluded Buffey completely, but also pointed to another man, Adam Bowers, who has a criminal record and lived near the victim. Bowers was convicted of the rape and robbery earlier this year.
Last year, 30 former federal and state prosecutors joined an
in support of Buffey’s innocence, which was filed with the Supreme Court of Appeals. The brief was written by Paul Schecthman, former U.S. attorney and Columbia University professor, and also noted that it is crucial that the prosecution turn over exculpatory information during the prosecution because the majority of criminal cases end in plea deals.
Today’s ruling allows Buffey to withdraw his guilty pleas and remands this matter to the trial court in Clarksburg, WV, for an order granting habeas relief. He maintains his innocence of the offense. Further proceedings, if any, will take place after the thirty-day time period for the State to seek reconsideration of the Supreme Court of Appeals’ decision has expired.
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