In a potentially very important ruling for the obligations of prosecutors in West Virginia to disclose evidence, the state Supreme Court ruled that the fact that a man's due process rights were violated when the prosecution negotiated a plea bargain with him, knowing all the time that a DNA test exonerated him of the charges against him.
The defendant in the case has been in prison for more than 13 years, after pleading guilty in 2002 to the rape and robbery of an elderly woman. He was sentenced to 70 years behind bars. Six weeks prior to the hearing where the defendant pleaded guilty, DNA testing concluded that he was not responsible, the Associated Press reports.
After the test results came to light, the defendant appealed, arguing that his guilty plea was coerced by the withheld evidence. The case eventually reached the West Virginia Supreme Court, which ruled in the defendant's favor. The court sent the case back to trial court, so that he can withdraw his guilty plea.
This means that the prosecutor's office could bring the case to trial, at least in theory. But overcoming the DNA evidence could be very difficult.
An attorney for the defendant called the ruling "extremely important to state and federal constitutional law." He said the decision will require West Virginia prosecutors to disclose exculpatory evidence, even while negotiating a plea bargain and doing so may convince the defendant to change his or her mind.
Criminal law is frequently changing, and a smart defense attorney will be on top of new developments and how they affect their clients.