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Md. high court: No post-conviction DNA testing for guilty, Alford pleas

Retired Court of Appeals Judge Lynne A. Battaglia made the most recent push for mandatory continuing legal education in Maryland in 2013. She acknowledges opposition remains but still believes it could happen in the future. ‘In order to be competent and be the best at what we do, we must continue to engage in educational efforts,’ she says. (File)

Retired Court of Appeals Judge Lynne A. Battaglia said it is up to the General Assembly to change the law if it wants people who plead guilty or enter an Alford plea to be able to have post-conviction DNA testing. (File)

People who plead guilty to a crime or concede the state has enough evidence to convict them forfeit their right to test a later-discovered DNA sample that could prove their innocence, Maryland’s top court has ruled.

Testing DNA, like filing an appeal, is among the rights people waive when they opt to plead guilty rather than go to trial, the Court of Appeals held. The high court added that conceding the state’s evidence of guilt, known as an “Alford plea,” is the functional equivalent of pleading guilty with regard to requests for post-conviction DNA testing.

The court rendered its decision Tuesday in rejecting William Todd Jamison’s bid to have a potentially exonerating DNA sample placed into evidence in 2008, 18 years after he took an Alford plea to first-degree rape and kidnapping. Jamison, who was facing additional charges of sexual offense, attempted murder, robbery and assault, is serving a prison term of life plus 30 years.

In rebuffing Jamison, the court noted Maryland law does not expressly bar those who plead guilty from later seeking access to DNA evidence. But General Assembly indicated its intention for such a prohibition when it enacted post-conviction DNA testing in Section 8-201 of the Maryland Criminal Procedure Article, the judges concluded.

Specifically, the law permits DNA evidence to be introduced post-conviction if it would show a “substantial possibility … that the petitioner would have not been convicted if the DNA results had been known or introduced at trial.”

Because guilty and Alford pleas forestall trials, the statutory provision enabling introduction of DNA evidence does not apply, the high court said.

Judge Lynne A. Battaglia, writing for the majority, said she understands the concern that the court’s decision could bar post-conviction relief by convicts who pleaded guilty or took Alford pleas before the widespread use of DNA evidence or who do not discover until later that DNA samples remain available for testing. But those concerns must be left to the General Assembly to resolve, she added.

“We … hold that a person who has pled guilty cannot avail himself of post-conviction DNA testing under Section 8-201,” Battaglia wrote for five of the high court’s seven members. “In so doing, we are mindful that legislative action may be more appropriate, should the legislature choose to act, because of the numerous variables that need to be considered to define the boundaries of post-conviction DNA testing.”

The Maryland attorney general’s office praised the high court’s decision in a statement.

“The statute, as written, simply will not work in such cases, because the law is premised on reconsidering the prior trial in light of the new evidence,” the office said. “When a defendant waives the right to a trial and waives the requirement of producing evidence, one cannot, years later, engage in the sort of reconsideration that is at the heart of the statute.”

Twenty-two states and Washington, D.C., expressly permit people who have pleaded guilty to seek post-conviction DNA testing, the court said. But only one state, Ohio, expressly prohibits people who have pleaded guilty from seeking post-conviction DNA testing, the court added.

Battaglia, a retired jurist sitting by special assignment, was joined by Judges Clayton Greene Jr., Sally D. Adkins, Michele D. Hotten and Joseph M. Getty.

Difference in pleas?

Judge Robert N. McDonald joined the court’s judgment against Jamison but not Battaglia’s opinion.

McDonald, joined by Chief Judge Mary Ellen Barbera, said a circuit court judge correctly rejected the convict’s petition for actual innocence because the post-conviction DNA test was inconclusive.

McDonald, however, said an Alford plea is distinct from a guilty plea because defendants maintain their innocence in the former but choose not to challenge the state’s evidence of guilt. As a result, an Alford plea does not necessarily have the same “collateral consequences” as a guilty plea, such as the waiver of the right to introduce later-discovered DNA evidence, McDonald wrote.

Jamison petitioned the Baltimore County Circuit Court for DNA testing in 2008, citing what he called newly discovered slides containing cellular material from the rape victim.

Baltimore County Circuit Judge Patrick Cavanaugh granted the petition and Dallas-based Orchid Cellmark conducted the testing.

But Vicki Ballou-Watts, a fellow judge on the circuit court, denied Jamison’s petition for actual innocence, saying the test result was not favorable to him because it was inconclusive.

Jamison appealed directly to the high court, as permitted under the post-conviction DNA testing statute.

Jamison’s attorney, Darren M. Welch, did not return telephone and email messages Wednesday seeking comment on the decision. Welch is with Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP in Washington, D.C.

The high court rendered its decision in William Todd Jamison v. State of Maryland, No. 6, September Term 2016.

The ruling is the court’s second this term related to the DNA Postconviction Act. Earlier this month, the court unanimously held the law only applies to people convicted of violent crimes, not conspiracy charges.

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