This is a case that should be open-and-shut but isn’t. Woman is raped by one person, a man is convicted of the crime, DNA tests are done, tests exclude the inmate and match someone else. The next logical statement is that inmate is released and the District Attorney charges the real perpetrator with the crime. However, this doesn’t happen in West Virginia.
In 2002, Joseph Buffey plead guilty and was convicted for the 2001 rape and robbery of an 83-year old woman, Ms. L. Ms. L had awoke in the early morning of Nov. 30, 2001 and found a young man in her bedroom. The young man then attacked and sexually assaulted the victim several times. While the victim could not identify the assailant, she was sure there was only one person.
At the time, Buffey was a suspect in a series of burglaries. One of his accomplices told police that Buffey raped Ms. L. After hours of interrogation, Buffey admitted to police that he was in Ms. L’s house but denied assaulting her. Ultimately, Buffey pled because he was facing a total of 14 charges and felt that he would get a lighter sentence than going to trial. At the time, DNA tests were being run but the results were never revealed because of Buffey’s plea. In 2003, Buffey requested the results of the DNA test. The results were inconclusive.
Buffey then received assistance from the Innocence Project in New York, who requested new DNA testing under West Virginia’s post-conviction testing law. New testing excluded Buffey and indicated another man committed the crime. However, the prosecutor refused to run the results through the FBI’s CODIS database and find out if it matched anyone with a criminal background. Their reasoning was that the new test was conducted by an unaccredited lab and uploading the result could threaten the state lab’s own accreditation. But an Innocence Project attorney told reporters that “We got really strong results this time,” Nina Morrison said, adding that the new test shows “unquestionable evidence of innocence.”
In November, the results were run through the CODIS database and matched Adam Bowers, who is serving time for another assault and was previously was convicted of record of breaking and entering. Logic follows that Buffey should now be released. But this week a judge denied a motion for release pending appeal. Worse yet, the District Attorney’s office now believes that Buffey had an unseen accomplice despite the victim’s consistent statements that there was only one attacker.
In a strong statement, one of Buffey’s attorney criticized the prosecutor for not caring to find out who actually committed the crime. “Why would you not want to know who committed this crime so you could prosecute them, especially if this person could be on the street and could be committing more crimes?” asked Barry Scheck, co-director of the Innocence Project. “Personally, that’s when we reached the conclusion that the prosecuting attorney in this case was less interested in finding out the truth and finding out who committed this crime, and more interested in protecting who might be at fault for failing to find who committed this crime.”
Scheck is right. Buffey’s case highlights a typical response of prosecutors to exculpatory DNA results – disbelief and reluctance to find out who the real criminal is. If a coerced confession and a DNA match to another person is not enough, what must a person show to prove their innocence? Does the real perpetrator have to confess in open court? Even in that situation, courts and prosecutors may still claim that the confessor is not being truthful.
However, we cannot forget one important lesson from Buffey’s case. It shows what post-conviction DNA laws are designed to do – free the wrongfully convicted and prove who the real perpetrator is.