Friday, May 26, 2017
Two days ago, the Court of Appeals of Maryland issued a landmark opinion on the issue of what it takes for a convicted defendants to get postconviction DNA testing. Simply put, Maryland's highest court made it much easier for convicted defendants to get such testing.
In Edwards v. State, Richard Edwards was convicted of various sexual offenses. The complainant, Ms. K., had left Big Dogs Paradise bar to make a call when
a man approached her car and identified himself as a "security guy" at Big Dogs. He claimed that he wanted to ensure Ms. K. had a safe ride home. Ms. K. told the man that she had a friend on the way to give her a ride and the man left. A few minutes later, however, while Ms. K. was still on the phone, the man returned to her car with a cigarette in his hand and asked to borrow her lighter. When Ms. K. gave the man her lighter, he asked to use her door to shield him from the wind while he lit his cigarette. Ms. K. agreed. The man crouched down in front of the passenger door to light the cigarette, but then he entered her car and sat down.
After some intervening events, the man sexually assaulted Ms. K. in her car.
Officers processed Ms. K.’s car for fingerprints, and investigators also recovered some items from the car that the suspect could have touched, including a Bic lighter, a Forever 21 plastic shopping bag, and a pack of Marlboro Menthol cigarettes....The police did not submit any evidence for DNA testing from Ms. K., her car, or the items in the car.
After Edwards was convicted for these offenses, he moved for DNA testing under Section 8-201 of the Maryland Code of Criminal Procedure, noting
that the victim testified that the perpetrator used her lighter and two witnesses testified that the victim told them the perpetrator asked her for a cigarette. [Edwards] maintained that it is likely that the perpetrator transferred epithelial cells to the lighter when he used it and that the perpetrator could also have touched the Forever 21 bag and the cigarette pack given his proximity to those items when he sat in the passenger seat.
The Circuit Court, however, denied his motion for DNA testing, concluding that "this [c]ourt can see no possibility that a DNA test performed on the items requested would exonerate Petitioner."
The Court of Appeals of Maryland later reversed. Here's the key portion of its opinion:
We thus hold that "exculpatory" under §8-201(d)(1) means evidence that would tend to clear the accused of guilt, or tend to establish his or her innocence. We further hold that "exculpatory" under this provision does not require a petitioner to establish that the result would have been different if the DNA results sought were known at the time of the trial. Accordingly, we hold that the hearing judge erroneously applied the wrong standard when she ruled that there was "no possibility that a DNA test performed on the items requested would exonerate [Appellant]."
So what does this practically mean? Consider the State's argument in Edwards:
The State claim[ed] that DNA cannot establish a negative, meaning that although the presence of Appellant’s DNA on the lighter would tend to establish he was the perpetrator, the absence of his DNA would not tend to establish that he was not the perpetrator; the absence of a DNA match effectively proves nothing, according to the State.
The Court of Appeals turned aside this argument, concluding that
The absence of Appellant’s DNA has the potential to exculpate Appellant to the extent that it would tend to prove that he either did or did not use the lighter that Ms. K. testified was used by the man who assaulted her. Where criminal agency is an issue, such as in this case, evidence tending to prove or disprove that the accused’s DNA is present on items that the perpetrator touched or may have come into contact with has a great potential to exculpate....Although the absence of Appellant’s DNA on the lighter would not conclusively prove that Appellant did not assault Ms. K., as the attacker may not have transferred any trace DNA to the lighter, absolute certainty is not the standard.
According to the court,
In assessing whether there is a reasonable probability that DNA testing may produce exculpatory or mitigating evidence, where the State has possession of an item that a perpetrator allegedly touched, a court may take into account factors such as the nature of the item (e.g., whether it is an instrumentality of the crime), the physical proximity between where the item was located and where the crime occurred, and the temporal proximity between when the perpetrator touched the item and when the crime occurred.
This is, of course, a landmark ruling that should allow many more Maryland defendants to secure postconviction DNA testing. But there is still a question of what happens on the back end. What if testing of the lighter excludes Edwards as the source of the epithelial cells? What if testing shows that some unknown person's epithelial cells were on the lighter? What if the DNA testing is a "match" for someone with a criminal record but no known connection to Big Dogs Paradise bar?
We'll have to wait for DNA testing to occur in this or similar cases to see what the Maryland courts do in one of these scenarios.