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Charging Two People with the Same Crime

A recent article in the New York Times Magazine tells the story of Joseph Buffey, a man who pled guilty to rape and robbery charges in West Virginia in 2002. The article describes how Mr. Buffey was originally arrested for break-ins in the area, which he admitted to, but was then interrogated by police and accused of committing the robbery and rape of an elderly woman. Mr. Buffey maintained his innocence during a nine-hour interrogation by police, but was eventually charged with the crimes against the woman when his two friends (who were accomplices during the break-ins) implicated him in the crime. Despite knowing that he was innocent, Mr. Buffey chose to plead guilty to the crimes in an attempt to receive a more lenient sentence than he would have if he had been convicted at trial. However, rather than receiving the fifteen year sentence that he had expected, Mr. Buffey was sentenced to over seventy years in prison.

Prior to Mr. Buffey’s plea, DNA collected from the rape scene had been tested and indicated that another man had committed the crime, yet prosecutors failed to turn this evidence over to Mr. Buffey’s lawyer, even when Mr. Buffey chose to plead guilty. This failure to turn over potentially exculpatory evidence is the basis for an appeal that is going to the West Virginia Supreme Court.

The DNA evidence is not the only evidence that raises questions of Mr. Buffey’s guilt. The two friends that had implicated Mr. Buffey were eventually revealed to be less reliable – one later recanted his statement, and the other had attempted to use his statement against Mr. Buffey as a bargaining chip for a lighter sentence in his own criminal case.

Prosecutors’ Duty

The key question in Mr. Buffey’s appeal is whether or not the prosecutor had a duty to turn over exculpatory evidence – the results of the DNA analysis – to Mr. Buffey and his lawyer prior to the entering of the plea deal. The Brady Rule, based on a Supreme Court case, requires the prosecution to disclose any evidence favorable to the defendant – including evidence that shows the defendant’s innocence, proves the defendant’s credibility, might reduce the defendant’s sentence, or contributes to the defendant’s affirmative defense. While that may seem cut and dry, the rule applies to criminal trials. Plea deals however, usually occur before a case gets far enough to go to trial. It is unsettled whether or not the prosecution is required to provide such evidence to a defendant before a trial has begun or during plea negotiations. This is especially concerning considering that, according to the Wall Street Journal, 97% of criminal cases end in plea bargains, rather than actual trials.

Moving forward

The West Virginia Supreme Court will hear Mr. Buffey’s case to decide if the prosecution violated the law by allowing Mr. Buffey to plead guilty without turning over the results of the DNA test, which could result in a reversal of Mr. Buffey’s conviction. Additionally, the prosecution could face disciplinary proceedings for possibly violating the ethical rules governing attorney conduct in West Virginia, such as Rule 8.4 which prohibits engaging in conduct that is “prejudicial to the administration of justice.” However, a professional conduct violation by the prosecution would not get Mr. Buffey out of prison, and therefore is not as powerful as a reversal of his conviction through an appeal.

If you or your loved one has been charged with a crime, it is important to work with an attorney who can help you understand your rights under the law. Contact the experienced Florida attorneys at The Baez Law Firm for a consultation today.

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