Monday, July 16, 2018
Introducing Project DNA: a 50 State Survey on Whether Pleading Defendants Can Seek Postconviction DNA Testing
Today, I'm starting a new series of 51 posts that I'm calling "Project DNA." It relates to an article I've been writing titled, "A Right to Prove Innocence After Pleading Guilty." The article addresses the fact that many states have statutes that preclude pleading defendants from seeking postconviction DNA testing.* To set up this series of posts, consider the following hypotheticals:
1. An African-American defendant is charged with sexual assaulting and murdering a brunette woman, convicted after a jury trial, and given a life sentence. Later, the State finds evidence that it had misplaced: four blond hairs with hair follicles recovered from the victim's underwear. The defendant seeks postconviction DNA testing of the hairs.
2. An African-American defendant is charged sexual assaulting and murdering a brunette woman, pleads guilty, and given a life sentence. Later, the State finds evidence that it had misplaced: four blond hairs with hair follicles recovered from the victim's underwear. The defendant seeks postconviction DNA testing of the hairs.
In hypothetical 1, every state and the District of Columbia is going to allow the defendant to seek postconviction DNA testing. Conversely, several states will not allow the defendant in hypothetical 2 to seek DNA testing. This is despite the fact that (1) this country's first DNA exoneration involved a pleading defendant;** and (2) 65 out of 149 DNA and non-DNA exonorees (44%) in 2015 had been convicted after guilty pleas.
In this series of posts, I will look at who can apply for postconviction DNA testing in each of the fifty states and the District of Columbia.
(a) An individual convicted of a capital offense who is serving a term of imprisonment or awaiting execution of a sentence of death, through written motion to the circuit court that entered the judgment of sentence, may apply for the performance of forensic deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) testing on specific evidence, if that evidence was secured in relation to the investigation or prosecution that resulted in the conviction of the applicant, is still available for testing as of the date of the motion, forensic DNA testing was not performed on the case at the time of the initial trial, and the results of the forensic DNA testing, on its face, would demonstrate the convicted individual's factual innocence of the offense convicted. The filing of a motion as provided in this subsection shall not automatically stay an execution.
(e) A motion for DNA testing shall contain all of the following items:...
Prima facie evidence demonstrating that the identity of the perpetrator was at issue in the trial that resulted in the conviction of the petitioner and that DNA testing of the specified evidence would, assuming exculpatory results, demonstrate the factual innocence of the applicant of the offense for which the petitioner was convicted.
Facially, Alabama's postconviction DNA testing statute is possibly the most restrictive in the country. Subsection (a) seemingly only allows for postconviction DNA testing in cases in which defendants were convicted of capital offenses, i.e., offenses that could have led to imposition of the death penalty. In other words, in Alabama, you could be convicted of a crime with a maximum punishment of life without parole, be given that punishment, and not be able to seek postconviction DNA testing. That said, in Cunningham v. District Attorney’s Office for Escambia County, the Eleventh Circuit concluded that other provisions of Alabama's postconviction statute might allow for defendants convicted of other crimes to seek postconviction DNA testing.
Alabama's statute does not have an explicit provision that distinguishes between pleading defendantsand non-pleading defendants. That said, subsection (e) requires a defendant to present "[p]rima facie evidence demonstrating that the identity of the perpetrator was at issue in the trial..." Courts in other states have largely interpreted similar language to preclude pleading defendants from seeking postconviction DNA testing because (1) their guilty plea means that identity was not at issue; and (2) their guilty plea means that there was not a trial.
So far, I have not been able to find any Alabama cases answering the question of whether pleading defendants are able to seek postconviction DNA testing. But, based upon what other states with similar statutes have done, I expect that Alabama courts would not allow pleading defendants to seek postconviction DNA testing.
*The article also addresses the fact that many states preclude pleading defendants from bringing freestanding claims of actual innocence based on non-DNA evidence.
**In 1989, David Vasquez was the first person who proved his innocence through postconviction DNA testing. In 1984, Carolyn Jean Hamm had been found raped and hanged in her Arlington, Virginia home, with her hands bound behind her with a Venetian blind cord. Detectives subsequently interrogated Vasquez about the crime for hours. Vasquez, who had a sub-70 IQ, eventually admitted to the crime, but he (1) initially said that he tied Hamm’s hands behind her back with ropes, his belt, and a coat hanger before being told that they were bound with a Venetian blind; and (2) initially said that he stabbed Hamm before being told that she was hung. After unsuccessfully claiming that his confession was involuntary, Vasquez pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and burglary to avoid the death penalty. Subsequent DNA testing established that Timothy Wilson Spencer was guilty of a series of similar crimes that led to him being dubbed the “Southside Strangler.” Based on the similar modus operandi of these crimes and the likelihood that Spencer had killed Hamm, Virginia Governor Gerald L. Baliles pardoned Vasquez on January 4, 1989.