Pennsylvania Supreme Court Rules That a Confession Does Not Bar Access to Post Conviction DNA Testing
Innocence Project Urges Philadelphia DA to Consent to DNA Testing that Would Prove Guilt or Innocence of Man Convicted of 1993 Rape and Murder
(PHILADELPHIA, PA; February 25, 2011) – The Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled earlier this week that the fact that a person has confessed to a crime does not bar him or her from seeking post conviction DNA testing. The ruling was issued in the case of Anthony Wright who has been seeking access to the testing for more than five years.
“The court rightly recognized that innocent people often confess to crimes they don’t commit and shouldn’t be denied access to DNA testing that could prove their innocence,” said Nina Morrison, a staff attorney with the Innocence Project, which is affiliated with Cardozo School of Law. “We look forward to working with District Attorney Seth Williams so that we can begin the testing and get a resolution in this case without further delay.”
Anthony Wright was convicted of rape and murder in 1993. Soon after the state passed a bill in 2002 allowing people who have been convicted of a crime access to DNA testing to prove their innocence, Wright asked that he be allowed to perform DNA testing on evidence that was found at the crime scene. Former Philadelphia District Attorney Lynne Abraham claimed that Wright wasn’t entitled to testing because he had confessed to the crime. The trial court and a state intermediate court agreed and denied the testing.
In its decision this week, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court overruled the lower courts and expressly disavowed an earlier intermediate appeals court ruling that was relied upon to deny the testing. The court acknowledges that the legislature passed the DNA testing law in response to a number of DNA exonerations, including one in which the person cleared by DNA evidence had confessed to the crime. The court notes that the fact that a confession has been deemed voluntary and admissible at trial does not mean that it is true and says, “We need not be reminded of the countless situations where persons confess to crimes of which they are innocent, either out of desire to cover up for the guilty person or because of a psychological urge to do so.”
The case will be sent back to the trial court to determine if Wright meets all of the requirements of the DNA testing law. According to the briefs that have filed been filed by the Innocence Project in the case, Wright meets these requirements.
“Mr. Wright has already waited over five years for access to DNA test that could be completed and prove innocence or guilt in a matter of weeks,” added Morrison. “It’s in everyone’s interest that we get these results as quickly as possible. If they do prove innocence, Mr. Wright should be freed and the state can begin searching for the real perpetrator who may be out committing other crimes.”
In June 1993, Wright was convicted of the 1991 robbery, rape and murder of an elderly woman in Philadelphia. He was convicted based on the testimony of eyewitnesses who may have been involved in the crime (the stolen items were found in their home) and a confession that he said police coerced him to sign. Several key pieces of evidence from the crime scene have not been subjected to DNA testing; they include multiple semen stains, blood stains and evidence collected in the rape kit during the victim’s autopsy. The Innocence Project has agreed to pay for all DNA testing in the case.
Tem people have been exonerated through DNA testing in Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania General Assembly passed its statute granting DNA testing in the aftermath of Bruce Godschalk’s exoneration. Like Wright, Godschalk confessed to a crime and had to fight for years to get DNA testing – which ultimately proved his innocence and exonerated him after 15 years in prison. Of the 266 people who have been exonerated by DNA testing nationwide, 25% involve people who falsely confessed or admitted to crimes.
A copy of the decision is available here, a concurring opinion is available here and a concurring and dissenting opinion is available here.
In addition to Morrison, Wright is represented by Innocence Project Co-Director Peter Neufield, Staff Attorney Craig Cooley and Philadelphia attorney Sondra Rodrigues.