The West Virginia Supreme Court ruled that a man could withdraw a guilty plea he made in 2002 for a robbery and rape because prosecutors had withheld DNA testing results suggesting that he was probably innocent. The New York Times quoted experts as saying that the case will have wider repercussions because it was the clearest decision yet on what has been an ambiguous, but important, question about the constitutional rights of criminal defendants. According to the rule from the 1963 Supreme Court case Brady v. Maryland, prosecutors must turn over potentially exculpatory information to defendants at criminal trials.
Whether they must also do so during the process of plea bargaining, before a defendant formally admits guilt and is sentenced, has been disputed. Several state and federal courts have suggested that the same principle should apply to such proceedings, some have disagreed, and the Supreme Court has not given a definitive answer. The issue is important, said Stanford law Prof. Jeffrey Fisher, because more than 90 percent of criminal cases are resolved with plea bargains, not at trial. The application of the Brady disclosure rule to plea bargaining is a “significant recognition of the realities of modern criminal procedure,” he said. Yesterday’s ruling granted an appeal by Joseph Buffey for the withdrawal of his 2002 guilty plea, which he has long said was pressured by prosecutors and his lawyer.