The West Virginia Supreme Court takes up today the controversial case of Joseph Anthony “Joe” Buffey. He’s the Harrison County man serving 70 years in prison after pleading guilty to the 2001 rape and robbery of the 83-year-old mother of a Clarksburg police officer.
The case is significant for several reasons.
First, there is compelling evidence that Buffey was not the attacker. Another individual, Adam Bowers, was convicted of the same rape earlier this year after DNA evidence linked him to the crime and excluded Buffey.
The Innocence Project, which advocates on behalf of prisoners who can be exonerated through DNA evidence, has taken on Buffey’s case. Morgantown attorney Al Karlin, who will argue on behalf of Buffey before the high court today, has said, “The state’s forensic DNA expert and the expert for Mr. Buffey both agree; the DNA evidence left behind by the rapist was that of Adam Bowers, not Joseph Buffey.”
Authorities relied heavily on Buffey’s initial confession, but that has come into question. Paul Shechtman, a former federal prosecutor and now a Columbia Law School professor, has gathered support from some 30 other former prosecutors to back Buffey.
“It’s a confession that’s taken back before it’s done,” Shechtman told me on Metronews Talkline Monday. “It’s a confession that is quite inconsistent with the facts of the case. He told the police what they wanted to hear.”
Harrison County authorities have theorized that the victim was attacked by more than one person, and that Buffey was the second individual. However, in her statements the victim only identified one attacker which, according to the DNA evidence, was Bowers.
Second, the case has national implications on the issue of what evidence prosecutors must give to the defense.
The current standard established by the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1963 decision Brady v. Maryland requires prosecutors to turn over potentially exculpatory evidence (evidence that could excuse or absolve the defendant of fault or guilt) to the defense before a trial. However, there is no such requirement in plea bargains.
In the Buffey case, his lawyers argue that prosecutors had in their possession the DNA evidence that appeared to exonerate Buffey, but did not reveal it to Buffey’s attorney. Had Buffey known the DNA implicated someone else, it’s doubtful he would have pleaded guilty.
Said Shechtman, “The state knew about this DNA evidence, but the judge didn’t and Buffey didn’t.”
(Buffey was a petty criminal who was also accused of burglary in another case at the time. His Innocence Project attorneys argue that Buffey was led to believe if he pleaded guilty to the rape, he would get a light sentence of a few years, not 70 years.)
The West Virginia Supreme Court could issue a ruling that would expand the Brady rule for disclosure of exculpatory evidence in plea bargains, as well as trials. That would have a significant impact on the judiciary since the vast majority of cases end with pleas rather than going to a jury.
As for Buffey, the Innocence Project has built a strong case for, at the very least, reasonable doubt that he was involved in the brutal crime.