Massachusetts High Court Examines Statute Permitting Defendants to Seek Post-Conviction DNA Testing

March 17, 2014
By Parker Scheer LLP on March 17, 2014 5:50 PM |

Last week, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) issued its opinion in Commonwealth v. Wade relative to the standards applicable to M.G.L. c. 278A, a statute enacted in 2012 that provides convicted and incarcerated defendants access to forensic and scientific analysis of evidence used to convict them. The statute's purpose was "to remedy the injustice of wrongful convictions of factually innocent persons by allowing access to analyses of biological material with newer forensic and scientific techniques."

In Wade, the defendant was convicted in 1997 of first-degree murder on a theory of felony-murder and aggravated rape. The defendant was accused of raping the 83-year-old victim who suffered from Alzheimer's disease, and who lived on the farm where the defendant worked. The victim was allegedly found naked on the defendant's bed on the property with injuries, which later led to complications and eventually her death. Evidence found on the victim and her clothing showed the presence of semen and sperm, but neither the defendant nor the Commonwealth sought DNA testing of the evidence. Since at least 2002, the defendant has been attempting to obtain DNA testing of the physical evidence against him, with the belief that it will exonerate him of the crimes for which he has been convicted. Each such attempt has been unsuccessful.

After the enactment of c. 278A, the defendant filed a motion and affidavit under the statute to aid him in his quest to obtain DNA testing of the evidence against him. The statute provides for a two-step process. First, the court in which the defendant was convicted must make a threshold determination as to whether the preliminary procedural steps of the statute have been satisfied. Then, if the court determines those steps have been satisfied, it must hold a hearing to determine whether the defendant has established, by a preponderance of the evidence, facts that are sufficient for a judge to order DNA testing or further discovery.

Here, the defendant's motion was denied at the initial stage, based upon the judge's conclusion that "the DNA testing sought by [the defendant] does not appear to have the potential to produce material evidence." However, as the SJC explained, the showing required of the defendant at the first stage, to justify proceeding to a hearing, is limited only to the requirements set forth in the statute, based solely upon the contents of the defendant's motion, the affidavits and supporting documents accompanying the motion, and any response from the Commonwealth.

Among other things, the initial step requires that the defendant's motion include "information demonstrating that the analysis has the potential to result in evidence that is material to the [defendant's] identification as the perpetrator of the crime in the underlying case." Here, the defendant's motion satisfied this requirement, because it included a statement that the DNA testing has the potential to result in evidence that is material to the identification of the person who committed the rape.

C. 278A also requires that the defendant explain in his motion the reason the evidence has not been subjected to the requested analysis. The motion also met this prerequisite. The defendant asserted that there was evidence at trial of a third party's involvement in the crimes, and notwithstanding this evidence, his trial lawyer failed to request DNA testing that might have revealed the identity of the third party, or that could exclude the defendant as the source of the semen and sperm. Accordingly, the defendant sufficiently explained that the analysis was not conducted due to his ineffective trial attorney, where a reasonably effective attorney would have sought such testing. Finally, the SJC determined that the defendant sufficiently asserted his factual innocence in his affidavit, as was also required under the statute.

Because the lower court imposed a much higher burden on the defendant at the initial stage than the statute contemplated, the SJC reversed the lower court's denial of the defendant's motion. Further, having analyzed and determined that the defendant made the preliminary showings required of him, the SJC remanded the case to the lower court for the hearing provided for under step two of c. 278A.