Md. High Court: No Post-Conviction DNA Test Requests After Alford Pleas

By John Grimm

The Court of Appeals recently held that defendants who plead guilty or enter an Alford plea are not eligible to request post-conviction DNA testing pursuant to Criminal Procedure § 8-201. Section 8-201 allows anyone convicted of a crime of violence to request DNA testing of evidence in their case, and § 8-201(d)(1) requires the court to order the requested testing if two conditions are satisfied:

(i) a reasonable probability exists that the DNA testing has the scientific potential to produce exculpatory or mitigating evidence relevant to a claim of wrongful conviction or sentencing; and

(ii) the requested DNA test employs a method of testing generally accepted within the relevant scientific community.

Md. Code Ann., Crim. Pro. § 8-201(d)(1). If the results of the DNA test are favorable to the petitioner, the court must open or reopen a post-conviction proceeding, or order a new trial. Id. § 8-201(i)(2).

In Jamison v. State, Judge Battaglia, writing for the majority, held that this provision does not, however, apply to defendants who plead guilty. Judge McDonald, joined by Chief Judge Barbera, concurred only in the majority’s judgment affirming the circuit court’s ruling that the specific DNA test at issue was not “favorable to the petitioner,” but did not join the majority’s reasoning.

The Jamison defendant entered an Alford plea to first-degree rape and kidnapping in 1990. In 2008, he filed a petition for post-conviction DNA testing, which a Baltimore County Circuit Court judge granted. In 2015, a different Baltimore County judge held that the test results were not favorable to the petitioner, and denied his motion to vacate his conviction. On direct appeal to the Court of Appeals, the State not only defended the merits of the decision, but disputed that Jamison had the right to request DNA testing in the first place.

The court first considered whether Jamison’s Alford plea was the same as a guilty plea. It concluded that an Alford plea “equates to” a guilty plea, but Judge McDonald took issue with this conclusion because defendants who enter an Alford plea do not admit guilt. Alford pleas also do not always carry the same collateral consequences as guilty pleas.

After concluding that Jamison’s plea was a guilty plea, the majority examined whether § 8-201 relief was available. At the outset, the court noted that defendants who plead guilty waive the right to challenge their convictions except on very limited grounds, and cannot pursue a writ of actual innocence. See Yonga v. State, 446 Md. 183 (2016). However, the court’s decision does not seem to rest on these facts; instead, it is based on § 8-201’s legislative history.

The decision to examine the legislative intent behind § 8-201 is somewhat curious, given that the court did not clearly identify an ambiguity in the statute[1] and normally courts will not analyze the legislative intent of unambiguous laws. Nevertheless, the court looked to the original conditions for obtaining DNA testing when § 8-201 was enacted in 2001. (In the original version of § 8-201 and the 2003 amendment, these conditions were in subsection (c). They were moved to subsection (d), their current location, in 2008.) In 2001, post-conviction DNA testing was available if six conditions were all met, including that “[i]dentity was an issue in the trial that resulted in the petitioner’s conviction.” The court interpreted this language as prohibiting DNA testing where convictions resulted from a guilty plea, since there was no trial.[2]

In 2003, the General Assembly amended § 8-201 to “clarif[y] ‘under what circumstances a court may order DNA testing.’” Slip Op. at 16. It deleted all six § 8-201(c) conditions and replaced them with the two conditions in effect today (at § 8-201(d)(1)) that do not contain any reference to trial. Although this might suggest that the legislature clearly intended not to limit DNA testing to cases that went to trial, the court held that because the 2003 amendment “clarified” when testing is available, it did not create a new rule, and thus “[t]he removal of the language that identity be an issue at trial . . . was not an indication that the Legislature intended to permit those who have pled guilty to file for post-conviction DNA testing.” Slip Op. at 20.[3]

To be sure, this is not an intuitive result: Assuming the “trial” language in the 2001 version of the statute was indeed a restriction on when DNA testing was available, the court held that by deleting that restriction to “clarify” when the statute applies, the General Assembly intended to keep the restriction in place. But the court bolstered this conclusion with a second line of reasoning, which is that other portions of § 8-201 still refer to trials.

Specifically, § 8-201(i) allows a court to order a new trial upon a favorable DNA test, if “a substantial possibility exists that the petitioner would not have been convicted if the DNA testing result had been known or introduced at trial[.]” Md. Code Ann., Crim. P. § 8-201(i)(2)(iii) (emphasis added). Because that language only applies to cases in which a trial took place, the court reasoned that DNA testing is not available where a trial did not occur.[4] The court drew a comparison to the holding in Yonga v. State that a writ of actual innocence is unavailable to defendants who plead guilty, because the relevant statute refers to evidence that “could not have been discovered in time to move for a new trial[.]” Slip Op. at 22 (citing Md. Code Ann., Crim. P. § 8-301(a). Here, again, Judge McDonald disagreed with the majority and noted that he would not have extended Yonga — which involved a guilty plea — to cases where defendants enter an Alford plea.

It’s not clear what the long-term consequences of Jamison will be. The majority opinion concludes with an invitation of “legislative action” to address the variables that arise with post-conviction DNA testing. One thing is clear, however: Jamison should cause practitioners to think carefully about the subtle formalities of similar types of pleas. Although the court treated Alford pleas the same as guilty pleas, Judge McDonald’s concurrence underscores the differences between the two.

In some Maryland jurisdictions, it is common for defendants to enter a “not guilty/statement of facts” plea (although usually not for crimes of violence), whereby the defendant pleads not guilty, but waives the right to a trial and agrees to a statement of facts supporting a guilty finding. Would such a plea preserve the right to a DNA test? Unclear. On the one hand, the defendant clearly did not plead guilty; on the other hand, there was still no trial, which Jamison suggests may be the linchpin of § 8-201. It’s also not settled whether other types of pleas such as nolo contendere pleas or conditional guilty pleas will also waive a defendant’s right to seek DNA testing. It’s easy for practitioners to lump all these types of pleas together as more or less equivalent ways to take advantage of a plea offer without admitting guilt or giving up all appellate rights, but Jamison highlights that the devil, as ever, is in the details, and practitioners must think through all the collateral consequences a particular plea might entail.

 

[1] The court did explain that “Section 8-201 is silent regarding whether a person who has pled guilty” is eligible for DNA testing, but it did not hold that this made the statute ambiguous. Indeed, § 8-201(d)(1) spells out two clear prerequisites to DNA testing, neither of which depends on the method of conviction.

[2] The court cited decisions from other states reaching similar conclusions.

[3] The court also noted that in Chesek v. Jones, 406 Md. 446 (2008), it held that when an amendment clarified whether a legislative committee could delegate its subpoena power, “the ‘clarifying’ purpose was indicative of the legislative intent, which was not to create a new power but to acknowledge one that already existed.” Slip Op. at 19.

[4]  The court’s opinion shows that this “at trial” language was added in a 2008 amendment. It appears that amendment did not take effect until January 2009, and Jamison filed his petition for DNA testing in October 2008. However, the court did not address the timing of the 2008 amendment, or what effect that timing might have on Jamison’s rights.

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