News 04.13.09

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


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

(PHILADELPHIA, PA; April 13, 2009) – The Pennsylvania Supreme Court will hear arguments Tuesday morning on whether a man who was convicted of rape and murder in 1993 has a right to 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.

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 Anthony Wright’s efforts to secure DNA testing for the last four years.

“The District Attorney does not dispute that DNA testing could prove Anthony Wright’s innocence. Testing would be conducted at no cost to the state and could be completed in a matter of weeks,” said Nina Morrison, a staff attorney at the Innocence Project who will argue the case Tuesday. The Innocence Project represents Wright and is affiliated with Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University.

In lower courts, the Philadelphia District Attorney’s office argued that Wright should be denied DNA testing because he confessed to the crime – even though 25% of the people exonerated through DNA testing nationwide confessed or admitted to crimes they did not commit. At the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, the District Attorney’s office shifted course and has claimed that prisoners should only be allowed DNA testing if there is “reasonable doubt” about their guilt.

“The District Attorney’s office is asking the state Supreme Court to create a new standard for DNA testing that virtually nobody could meet. By definition, prisoners seeking DNA testing have been convicted beyond a reasonable doubt. If we used that same standard for post-conviction DNA testing, only people who could already overturn their convictions based on other evidence would be allowed to have DNA testing,” Morrison said.

Nine people have been exonerated through DNA testing in Pennsylvania. Virtually none of them could have gotten the DNA testing that proved their innocence if they had to show “reasonable doubt” about their guilt, according to the Innocence Project. The Pennsylvania General Assembly passed its statute granting DNA testing in the aftermath of Bruce Godschalk’s exoneration. Like Wright, Godschalk confessed to a crime and had to fight for years to get DNA testing – which ultimately proved his innocence and exonerated him after 15 years in prison. In a brief filed in Wright’s case, the Philadelphia District Attorney’s office has said Godschalk should not have gotten the DNA testing that exonerated him – even though there is no dispute that it proved Godschalk’s innocence.

“The District Attorney’s sweeping and absurd rewriting of the state’s DNA testing law is difficult to comprehend. We’re hopeful that the state Supreme Court will interpret the law as it was intended, and that Anthony Wright will finally get the DNA testing that could prove his innocence,” Morrison said.

In June 1993, 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 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 has agreed to pay for all DNA testing in the case. Sondra Rodrigues is pro bono co-counsel with the Innocence Project on the case. 

Following are logistical details for tomorrow’s hearing:


What

: Pennsylvania Supreme Court hearing in Commonwealth of Pennsylvania v. Anthony Wright


When

: Tuesday, April 14, 2009, 9:30 a.m.


Where

: City Hall, Room 456 (Broad St. and Market St., Philadelphia)

*Press entrance on NE side of building


Who

: Nina Morrison, staff attorney at the Innocence Project, will argue on Wright’s behalf and speak to reporters after the hearing.


Contact

: For additional information please contact: Alana Salzberg, Innocence Project,

Asalzberg@innocenceproject.org

, 212.364.5983 office

The Innocence Project, which is affiliated with Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University, is a national litigation and public policy organization dedicated to exonerating wrongfully convicted people through DNA testing and reforming the criminal justice system to prevent future injustice. To date, 235 people nationwide have been exonerated through DNA testing and dozens of states have implemented critical reforms to prevent wrongful convictions.

 

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