January 25th, 2016
State Attorney General Patrick Morrisey will not file an appeal with the U.S. Supreme Court in the case of a Clarksburg man who has been in prison for 14 years because prosecutors withheld evidence while he was in the process of pleading guilty.
In November, the state Supreme Court ruled unanimously that Joseph Buffey’s due process rights were violated when Harrison County prosecutors did not disclose a DNA test that indicated he was not guilty of the rape he had been charged with.
The case set a new precedent in West Virginia criminal law — prosecutors must hand over favorable evidence to defendants, not just before a trial, but during the plea bargain process as well.
Morrisey had asked the court to wait on finalizing its ruling while he decided whether or not he wanted to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.
On Monday, he decided he would not appeal “due to the unique circumstances of the case.
“I remain concerned about the consequences of the state Supreme Court’s potentially broad ruling and hope the court will reconsider or narrow its decision in the future,” Morrisey said in a prepared statement.
The case attracted national attention as the central issue — when a prosecutor must turn over evidence favorable to the defense — has never been resolved by the U.S. Supreme Court.
That issue is also central to the country’s criminal justice system, as well over 90 percent of criminal cases that never go to trial.
“Horse trading, between prosecutor and defense counsel, determines who goes to jail and for how long,” the U.S. Supreme Court wrote in a separate case in 2012. “That is what plea bargaining is. It is not some adjunct to the criminal justice system; it is the criminal justice system.”
Buffey has been in prison since he pleaded guilty in 2002 to sexual assault, at age 19. His plea came after a nine-hour interrogation and after his court-appointed lawyer advised him that his sentence would not be greater than he would receive for separate nonviolent robbery charges.
His court-appointed lawyer told him to accept the guilty plea — which would soon expire — despite the fact that both he and his lawyer repeatedly requested the DNA results, which pointed toward a different assailant.
That assailant pleaded guilty last spring to the sexual assault, but Buffey remains in prison.
Buffey has been represented, in part, by the Innocence Project, a national organization that uses DNA evidence to free people wrongly convicted of crimes.
“For the first time in nearly 14 years, Joe Buffey no longer stands convicted of a rape and robbery,” Allan Karlin, Buffey’s Morgantown-based lawyer, wrote. “We are hopeful that we can work with the Harrison County Prosecuting Attorney to quickly bring the case to a just and final conclusion.”
The case will now be returned to Harrison County Circuit Court. Buffey will officially withdraw his guilty plea and the local prosecutor will decide whether to free him or to begin a new trial.
Assistant Prosecutor David Romano, who was not on the case when it first came up in 2002 but argued it for Harrison County in the fall, did not return requests for comment on Monday.
This article originally appeared on the January 25th edition of the West Virginia Charleston Gazette’s website. To view it completely, click here.