A blog of the Philadelphia Bar Association’s Criminal Justice Section

By Burt Rose

With thanks to Sondra Rodrigues, Esq., attorney for the Appellant, here are the highlights of the decision of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in the matter of COMMONWEALTH OF PENNSYLVANIA v. ANTHONY WRIGHT, Appellant, 2011 WL 650555,No. 21 EAP 2008, an appeal from an Order of the Superior Court entered on October 17, 2007 at No.1383 EDA 2006, 935 A.2d 542, affirming an Order of the Court of Common Pleas, Philadelphia County, Criminal Division, dated April 20, 2006 at No. CP-51-CR-1131582-1991. The Opinion was written by MADAME JUSTICE TODD on February 23, 2011.

This case presented the question of whether a convicted person who seeks court ordered DNA testing under the “Postconviction DNA Testing Act,” 42 Pa.C.S.A. § 9543.1, is precluded by his confession, which was ruled to be voluntary and admitted into evidence against him at trial, from establishing a prima facie case demonstrating that DNA testing would establish his actual innocence. The Court concluded that a confession, even if previously and finally adjudicated as voluntary, does not constitute a per se bar to establishing a prima facie case, and the convicted person may, therefore, obtain DNA testing under Section 9543.1 if he or she meets all of this statute’s pertinent requirements.

The plain language of subsections (c)(3)(i) and (c)(3)(ii)(A), read together, establishes two basic requirements a convicted individual requesting DNA testing, who also meets the requirements set forth in Section 9543.1(a), is obliged to establish in his or her written motion: 1) a prima facie case demonstrating that identity of the perpetrator of the crime was at issue at trial, and 2) a prima facie case that DNA testing of the specific evidence identified in the motion, assuming it yields exculpatory results, would establish his or her actual innocence of the crime for which he or she was convicted. Nowhere in subsections (c)(3)(i) or (c)(3)(ii)(A), or in any of the other provisions of Section 9543.1, did the legislature include an explicit prohibition to prevent a convicted individual who has confessed to a crime, and who otherwise meets all of the statutory requirements, from obtaining DNA testing, merely because of the existence of the confession.

Furthermore, the question of the voluntariness of a defendant’s confession and the question of the defendant’s actual guilt or innocence are fundamentally different issues. A finally litigated ruling that a confession has been given knowingly and voluntarily is not binding on courts in subsequent phases of the case considering the wholly separate question of whether DNA testing may establish an individual’s actual innocence, the confession notwithstanding. Therefore, the Court held that a confession, in and of itself, is not a per se bar under Section 9543.1(c)(3) to a convicted individual establishing a prima facie case that DNA testing would establish actual innocence of the crime for which he or she was convicted, even if the voluntariness of that confession has been fully and finally litigated.

Free legal research available on State and Federal court appointed cases from the Student Research Center. http://www.philadelphiabar.org/page/CJResearch?appNum=4

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