Joe Buffey walked out of the Harrison County Courthouse Tuesday a free man. It was a long time coming. Buffey had served nearly 15 years for a crime he did not commit.
Buffey plead guilty in 2002 to sexually assaulting an 83-year-old Clarksburg woman and was sentenced to 70 years in prison. However, in 2008 the Innocence Project took up his case and revealed serious flaws in the prosecution.
A number of his statements to police were inconsistent with the facts of the case. Buffey’s confession was coerced and retracted almost immediately. But most importantly, DNA evidence showed Buffey was NOT the attacker. That evidence was available in 2002, but was withheld from Buffey’s lawyer.
(That evidence was eventually used to convict the real attacker, Adam Bowers, last year and he is now in prison.)
The state Supreme Court determined last year that Buffey’s rights were violated and a retrial was set. Ultimately, a deal was worked out with the prosecution where Buffey entered what’s called a “Kennedy plea” to burglary and robbery, which allowed him to maintain his innocence to the crimes, but accept the plea because it was in his best interest.
The Buffey case is significant, not only because an innocent man has been freed, but also because it demonstrates what happens when the prosecution fails to fulfill its obligation under the 1963 U.S. Supreme Court decision Brady v. Maryland to turn over to the defense all evidence, including information that could absolve the defendant of guilt.
Had the DNA evidence been made available to Buffey’s lawyer 14 years ago, there’s no doubt Buffey would have withdrawn from the plea deal. Additionally, investigators could have used that evidence then to find the real assailant.
Morgantown attorney Al Karlin, along with attorneys Michael Hissam and Isaac Forman from the law firm Bailey Glasser, worked tireless on Buffey’s behalf. Karlin estimates he and others in his office spent over 2,000 hours working to free Buffey. The work was all pro bono.
Law abiding citizens owe those lawyers a debt of gratitude. Joe Buffey was a 19-year-old petty criminal when he went to jail. No one, beyond his immediate family, would have thought twice about whether justice was done, and he would have probably spent the rest of his life there had the Innocence Project and those lawyers not taken on his case.
One of the cornerstones of the American judicial system is the presumption of innocence. Founding Father John Adams, who made the unpopular decision to represent British soldiers accused of murdering colonists, said, “It is more important that innocence be protected than that guilt be punished.”
That can sometimes be a difficult concept to adhere to because the thought of someone getting away with a crime is so abhorrent. But when an innocent person is jailed for a crime they did not commit, that means the guilty person is still walking the streets.
Also, as Adams said, when an innocent person is condemned, others who themselves are innocent lose faith that the law provides protection for them.
Joe Buffey is free today. That’s a victory for him and also for everyone who values the protections afforded to us under the rule of law.