CLARKSBURG, W. Va. — The Innocence Project is working to help finalize an appeal in the case of a Harrison County man involving a 2001 sexual assault and robbery to the state Supreme Court.
“There is room in our great system, and that’s what I love about our country, to correct mistakes,” Al Karlin, a Morgantown lawyer representing the defendant said. “We can set things aside where there’s manifest injustice. Prosecutors are supposed to care not just about conviction but about justice, and that’s what this case is about.”
Joseph Anthony “Joe” Buffey’s, now 31, appeal to overturn a guilty plea and a 70-year prison sentence based on new DNA evidence was rejected by Harrison County Circuit Court Judge Thomas Bedell in June.
Now, Buffey’s defense is finalizing its appeal to be sent off to the state’s high court, arguing that it should hear his case based on the DNA evidence. This is why the Innocence Project, a national litigation and public policy organization working to exonerate wrongfully convicted individuals through DNA testing took interest.
As the technology with DNA identification has improved over the years, the case for Buffey’s guilty to be overturned improves.
“When you examine the DNA that was left at the crime scene, it’s not Joe Buffey,” Karlin said on Tuesday’s MetroNews “Talkline.”
In December 2001, Joseph Anthony “Joe” Buffey was a 19-year old arrested after breaking into three downtown businesses in Clarksburg.
He quickly confessed to the crimes but, according to Karlin, he was then interrogated for eight hours about another crime committed nearby that night in which a suspect broke into the home of the 83-year-old mother of a Clarksburg police officer, held a knife to her, demanded money and sexually assaulted her multiple times.
The DNA testing from the sexual assault kit was either said to be not available before Buffey entered into a plea deal at the advice of his court-appointed lawyer or inconclusive when Buffey first began to appeal for his innocence in 2004.
More recent DNA tests have positively identified the semen found at the crime scene as belonging to Adam Bowers, who is currently in prison for separate crimes and has been charged with the robbery and sexual assault in 2001.
The state argues this does not exonerate Buffey, claiming he was at the scene as well.
The defense counters that this two-suspect theory goes against the DNA tests and the “clear” and “lucid” testimony of the victim given multiple times without discrepancy indicating through the entire crime, there was only one suspect.
“As one brief filed on behalf of Joe says, if he was there, he was the most unobtrusive accomplice in the history of West Virginia criminal law,” Karlin said. “It’s insulting to the victim to say there were two people there.”
There have been two major hurdles in Buffey’s appeals.
One being the fact he never admitted to this crime but to being in the house during the eight-hour interrogation –even though he answered every subsequent question from the interrogators about the crime scene incorrectly and the interrogators later testified they had never been trained to interrogate suspects.
The other being that he accepted the plea deal at the advice of his court-appointed lawyer on the grounds he may receive leniency and spend the same time in jail as he would for the crimes he did admit too.
For this reason, Judge Bedell determined Buffey’s appeal was “buyer’s remorse” after not getting a shorter sentence and the prosecuting attorney’s maintain his guilty as he had plenty of time to decide on how he would plead and still chose to enter one of guilt.
The defense contends this decision was made under pressure and, statistics show, many more are made like it.
“Many times, people either confess to or plead to crimes they didn’t commit,” Karlin said. “In fact, I think something like 30 percent of the individuals who have been freed based on DNA evidence have given confessions to crimes they didn’t commit and 10 percent of actually plead to crimes they didn’t commit.”
As for why the state maintains Buffey’s guilt despite DNA evidence and another suspect set to go on trial in April for the crime, Karlin said he hopes it comes down to being difficult to admit a mistake.
“Some of us get into something, we’re commit to it and we lock ourselves into that type of thinking. I really think that’s what happened in this case because an objective look at the evidence just has to concluded that Joe Buffey didn’t do this.”
Should the appeal to the state Supreme Court fail, the defendant can take the case to the U.S. Supreme Court. Should it come to that, lawyers from around the country are encouraging them to as it could set precedent for similar cases in the future.