Watershed criminal justice result based in part on pro bono amicus work by Lieff Cabraser attorney Evan Ballan

On March 11, 2022, the North Carolina Supreme Court issued an order creating a critical new criminal justice standard, permitting criminal defendants to seek post-conviction DNA innocence testing even if they had pled guilty in the original criminal matter. This is expected to be a transformative shift, because while over 10% of wrongful convictions in the U.S. tied to DNA evidence involve a guilty plea, most states prohibit allowing convicted defendants access to the DNA evidence that might have led to a wrongful conviction for rightful appeals of those convictions, and as a result many current laws fail to include adequate safeguards for the preservation of the potentially exonerating DNA evidence. Many criminal defendants make a guilty plea even when they know they are innocent because the alternative of facing a trial could result in much more substantial incarceration or even execution. The nation’s court records reflect myriad examples of defendants who pled guilty, only to later be exonerated when critical DNA evidence was found or properly reinterpreted.

The trigger case was State v. Alexander in the North Carolina courts, in the wake of which Lieff Cabraser and firm attorney Evan Ballan  represented the Innocence Network, a consortium of innocence and criminal justice groups, in amicus briefing in support of criminal defendant Kelvin Alexander. Mr. Alexander pled guilty to second-degree murder in 1993 following a gas station robbery. In 2016, Mr. Alexander filed a post-conviction motion under state law seeking DNA testing of evidence from his case. The trial court ruled against Mr. Alexander; Mr. Alexander appealed, and the State argued that the trial court was correct in excluding the evidence on materiality grounds, and that Mr. Alexander was in any event barred from seeking proper review of DNA data because he had pled guilty.

The appellate court affirmed the trial court’s denial on the materiality, but issued a split decision that a guilty plea should not preclude a defendant from seeking DNA review and or testing in appropriate cases.  Both issues were appealed to the North Carolina Supreme Court.

On Friday, March 11th, 2022, that Court issued an order adopting the lower court’s determination on issues of materiality (ruling against Mr. Alexander on those elements of his case), but reached the groundbreaking conclusion that post-conviction access to DNA testing and data for defendants who plead guilty should be admitted, with favorable citation to Evan’s amicus brief and express reliance on many of its sources throughout the opinion, including in the following passages:

Any argument that innocent people do not enter guilty pleas and that the General Assembly could not have intended to create a situation in which defendants were allowed to make conflicting sworn statements concerning their guilt or innocence fails for a number of reasons as well. Aside from the fact that at least one North Carolina defendant who had been convicted based upon his plea of guilty had been exonerated through the use of DNA testing even before enactment of N.C.G.S. § 15A-269, of the 2,997 documented cases since 1989 in which individuals who have been exonerated after having been wrongfully convicted, 672—or over 22 percent—involved guilty pleas,6 with this number including thirteen cases arising in North Carolina, eight of whom were exonerated on the basis of DNA testing.7 For that reason, the available evidence clearly suggests that innocent people do, in fact, enter guilty pleas.

An innocent person may plead guilty to the commission of a criminal offense for a number of perfectly understandable reasons. For example, an innocent defendant may elect to plead guilty to avoid the risks and uncertainties associated with a trial that may result in a more severe sentence than the one offered by the prosecutor pursuant to a plea agreement. [citations omitted]. As evidence of that fact, we note that a 2002 report by the North Carolina Sentencing and Policy Advisory Commission, a body that provides recommendations to the General Assembly regarding sentencing legislation, found that defendants who enter guilty pleas “may get a shorter active sentence or avoid active time altogether by getting probation.” [citations omitted]. In addition, entering a guilty plea provides the defendant with “more control over the sentence” and facilitates an outcome that “is more predictable than what a judge and jury may decide to do.” Id. Finally, defendants often plead guilty “out of pure fear” that they will be treated more harshly if they insist upon pleading not guilty and going to trial, [citations omitted], as is evidenced by the Sentencing and Policy Advisory Commission’s conclusion that “prosecutors are more likely to seek an aggravated sentence or to ask for consecutive sentences in cases that proceed through trial,” despite the fact that a defendant has a constitutional right not to be penalized for exercising the right to plead not guilty and be tried by a jury of his or her peers.

An innocent defendant may be particularly prone to enter a guilty plea in a potentially capital case like this one. As the Innocence Network points out in its amicus brief, an innocent defendant may be confronted with the difficult choice of “falsely plead[ing] guilty and serv[ing] time in prison, or risk[ing] execution,” with “many understandably choos[ing] the guilty plea” when “[f]aced with that dilemma.” Similarly, Judge Jed S. Rakoff of the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York has noted that the “plea bargain[ing] system, by creating such inordinate pressures to enter into plea bargains, appears to have led a significant number of defendants to plead guilty to crimes they never actually committed,” with defendants charged with rape and murder having presumably done “so because, even though they were innocent, they faced the likelihood of being convicted of capital offenses and sought to avoid the death penalty, even at the price of life imprisonment.” [citation omitted].  As a result, an innocent defendant may well choose the relative certainty of the more lenient sentence associated with the entry of a guilty plea to the risk of receiving a more severe one following a guilty verdict rendered at trial. Any decision to limit the scope of the relief that the General Assembly intended to make available by means of the enactment of N.C.G.S. § 15A-269 to those whose convictions resulted from decisions made at the conclusion of trials on the merits overlooks the extent to which innocent people can be wrongfully convicted after pleading guilty, with there being no reason that we can identify for the General Assembly to have decided that wrongfully convicted individuals who pled guilty should be treated differently than wrongfully convicted individuals who were incarcerated as the result of decisions made by juries or trial judges sitting without a jury.

(Amicus Brief, various pages)

Congratulations to Evan and the Innocence Network on their work helping the Court reach this ruling, a watershed moment in the ongoing fight for true justice.

Click here to read the full amicus brief.

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