Criminal Justice

Defendant who didn't get exculpatory DNA results can withdraw guilty plea, state supreme court says

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The West Virginia Supreme Court says an inmate can withdraw his 2002 guilty plea to robbery and rape because he didn’t receive exculpatory test results.

The Nov. 10 decision (PDF) “will reverberate more widely” because of conflicting rulings on whether prosecutors must disclose evidence favorable to the defendant before plea bargaining, the New York Times reports.

The defendant, Joseph Buffey, had been arrested in a string of robberies but maintained he had nothing to do with the rape and robbery of an 83-year-old woman. He says he pleaded guilty to the crime in hopes of avoiding a long sentence. He was sentenced to a minimum of 70 years in prison, however, and remains in jail.

Though Buffey’s lawyer had requested the test results before his client entered the plea, he was told they weren’t available. The initial tests were discovered after Buffey filed a pro se petition and received a court appointed-lawyer. Though the results excluded Buffey as the primary source of the semen, experts who testified at a 2004 hearing said the results could not definitively rule out Buffey as a secondary source of the semen. His request for habeas relief was denied.

New testing by the Innocence Project used newly developed methods that excluded Buffey as either a primary or secondary source of the genetic material. The results pointed to a different man, an inmate with a history of violence who had delivered newspapers to the victim.

The different man was convicted of the same rape, according to the Times.

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