ANALYSIS OF MARCH 7, 2019 SUPREME COURT OPINION
(Posted March 7, 2019) Today the justices reach far back, ruling on a petition for a writ of actual innocence relating to a crime that occurred in 1975. In In re: Scott, the Supreme Court analyzes DNA evidence that the defendant claims exonerates him.
A jury convicted Scott of rape, based on an identification by the victim. She testified that she was assaulted in her bedroom by a single attacker. She acknowledged that “her drapes were drawn, and the room was dark except for some light from a ‘pole light’ outside. She did not get a good look at the man.”
Scott offered an alibi defense from two witnesses, but the jury found him guilty. The circuit court sentenced him to 14 years in prison. An appeal and a habeas petition were both unsuccessful, and Scott served several years before being paroled.
In the Twenty-First Century – first in 2010 and again in 2017 – the Department of Forensic Science conducted DNA testing on some of the evidence in the case, most importantly a pair of the victim’s jeans and a buccal swab from Scott. Those tests indicated that sperm on the jeans could not have come from Scott; nor were they from the victim’s boyfriend, who was her only consensual sexual partner at the time. This petition followed.
Today’s opinion is just over 24 pages, and almost ¾ of that is a recitation of the facts and the procedural posture. That’s an indication of how fact-intensive these proceedings are. The justices evaluate the petition and conclude, unanimously, that “no rational trier of fact would have found him guilty beyond a reasonable doubt” given the results of the DNA tests. The court accordingly grants the writ and vacates the convictions.
There’s one ruling that will prove useful in future petitions. One of Scott’s witnesses was a forensic DNA expert from a private company. She explained the meaning of the tests conducted by DFS, the official state agency charged with conducting testing. The Commonwealth objected to the testimony, citing last year’s In re Brown ruling, where the justices held that tests conducted outside DFS and not reviewed or certified by the state agency, are irrelevant in actual-innocence proceedings.
The court rules that it may consider Scott’s expert here, because she conducted no testing. She merely commented on and explained the DFS test results. That’s acceptable, and in a hypothetical trial, a jury would certainly be allowed to hear her testimony. Lawyers filing petitions like this in the future should keep this distinction in mind when marshaling evidence.