News 07.09.07

Pennsylvania Appeals Court to Hear Arguments Tuesday on Whether Man Convicted of Rape/Murder Can Have DNA Testing


For two years, Philadelphia DA has fought DNA testing that can prove guilt or innocence; state law clearly allows for testing, Innocence Project says

(PHILADELPHIA, PA; July 9, 2007) – A state appeals court in Philadelphia will hear arguments Tuesday morning on whether a man who was convicted of rape and murder in 1993 has a right to seek DNA testing on several pieces of evidence that can definitively prove who committed the crime. The Innocence Project, which represents the man, said state law clearly allows for DNA testing in the case.

The hearing is set for tomorrow, Tuesday, July 10, at 10:30 a.m. at Pennsylvania Superior Court (530 Walnut Street in Philadelphia) in front of a three-judge panel. Innocence Project Staff Attorney Nina Morrison, who will argue the case, will speak to reporters outside the courthouse immediately following the hearing.

In June 1993, Anthony Wright was convicted of the 1991 robbery, rape and murder of an elderly woman in Philadelphia. He was convicted based on the testimony of eyewitnesses who may have been involved in the crime (the stolen items were found in their home) and a supposed confession that he said police coerced him to sign. Several key pieces of evidence from the crime scene have not been subjected to DNA testing; they include multiple semen stains, blood stains and evidence collected in the rape kit during the victim’s autopsy. The Innocence Project, which is affiliated with Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University, has agreed to pay for all DNA testing in the case.

In 2002, Pennsylvania enacted a law that allows convicted people to seek DNA testing to prove their innocence. The law applies to people convicted before 1995 or cases where DNA testing was not previously conducted, and the law says courts that are weighing requests for testing should presume that the DNA testing would be exculpatory (meaning the results would favor the defendant). However, the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office has opposed Wright’s efforts to secure DNA testing – claiming that because Wright supposedly confessed, he cannot seek DNA testing – and last year a lower court denied testing. Tuesday’s hearing is on an appeal of that ruling.

“When legislators passed the state’s post-conviction DNA testing law, this was exactly the kind of case they intended to cover. Advanced DNA testing was not available before Anthony Wright was convicted, and there are several pieces of biological evidence that could only have come from the person who committed this crime. Why the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office is opposing DNA testing in this case is a mystery – but what’s no mystery is the purpose and scope of the law, which plainly gives our client the right to secure DNA testing that could prove his innocence,” Morrison said.

Of the 205 DNA exonerations nationwide, 25% involve people who falsely confessed or admitted to crimes, according to the Innocence Project. In Pennsylvania, post-conviction DNA testing proved that several people had confessed to crimes they did not commit. In one such case, Bruce Godschalk of Montgomery County confessed to rapes he did not commit; he was convicted and served more than 14 years in prison. For more than seven years, he sought DNA testing to prove his innocence, but he was denied because he had confessed to the crimes. Finally, represented by the Innocence Project, he secured DNA testing that proved he did not commit the crimes. Within months of his exoneration, the state legislature passed the law granting post-conviction access to DNA testing.

“This law was created to avoid the kind of miscarriage of justice Bruce Godschalk and other Pennsylvanians endured. Yet, five years after the law went into effect, Anthony Wright is facing the exact same hurdles and stonewalling. Instead of following the law, the District Attorney’s office is asking the court to rewrite it,” Morrison said.

The inherent flaws in the DA’s argument that Wright should not get DNA testing because he confessed are laid bare in papers the state filed in the case in late May, the Innocence Project said. In a May 29 filing, the District Attorney’s office cites the case of Byron Halsey in New Jersey as an example of DNA testing that was “properly denied where trial evidence, which included defendant’s confession, was overwhelming.” In fact, two weeks before the DA filed those papers with the appeals court, Halsey’s conviction was vacated because DNA testing showed that another man committed the child rapes and murders for which Halsey was convicted 19 years ago. This afternoon, Halsey was fully exonerated when prosecutors dismissed the case against him.

“Even cases the District Attorney’s office holds out as examples for denying Anthony Wright his legal right to DNA testing are, in fact, examples of how science can be used to get the truth in cases and definitely prove guilt or innocence,” Morrison said. “In opposing this motion for DNA testing and causing a prolonged legal struggle, the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office is ignoring reality and shunning its obligation to see that justice is done.”

Sondra Rodrigues is pro bono co-counsel with the Innocence Project on the case.

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