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Confession No Longer a Bar to Post-Conviction DNA Testing in Pennsylvania

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At age 17, Anthony Wright confessed to the 1991 rape and murder of 77 year-old Louise Talley. The trial court ruled that the confession was voluntarily made, and could be used against him at trial. After his conviction, Wright asked the court to allow him to test blood and semen found at the scene for DNA. The trial court denied his request on the logic that he had confessed to the crime and, therefore, could not claim to be “innocent” as required by the post-conviction DNA testing statute. The Superior Court agreed.

Last week, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court held that testing could not be withhled from Mr. Wright simply on the basis of his alleged confession. The Pennsylvania Superior court had barred DNA testing in Wright’s case based on a 2005 decision in the case of John Young, who was refused DNA testing because he confessed to a 1975 murder (but later recanted). The Supreme Court has now overturned the Young decision, allowing post-conviction DNA testing in cases where a confession has taken place.

Even when someone has confessed to a crime, he or she can still be innocent. We’ve seen in many cases how confessions can be coerced, leading to false convictions. The opinion states:

Amicus, the American Psychological Association (“APA”), contends in its brief there have been many historical instances when innocent people volunteered confessions to crimes they did not commit, including the nearly 200 people who came forward to say that they kidnapped Charles Lindbergh’s baby, and the more recent well-publicized confession of John Mark Karr to the murder of JonBenet Ramsey. The APA enumerates a variety of reasons why innocent people might voluntarily confess, such as an individual’s desire for media attention or public notoriety, guilty feelings or delusions of involvement, a belief that they will benefit by the act of confession, or the confessor is motivated by a desire to protect a parent, child, or someone else.

The first factor it cites is interrogation tactics which can lead innocent people to confess in order to end the interrogation process. According to the APA, such tactics can involve: (a) isolating and cutting off the person being interrogated from his or her support structure of family and friends and then confronting the person with strong accusations of guilt which the interrogator claims are supported with evidence, even though some of this evidence may not even exist, resulting in strong feelings of despair; (b) wearing the interrogated person down with lengthy interrogations; (c) the interrogator pretending to minimize the severity of the offense and to provide sympathy or moral justification for the questioned individual’s actions; and (d) the interrogator suggesting to the individual that he or she would be treated with leniency if he or she confesses.

42 other states, plus the District of Columbia and the Federal Government, have laws that regulate post-conviction DNA testing, and none restrict testing following a confession, even if it has been deemed voluntary. Pennsylvania is now just joining the vast majority of states that permit DNA testing in situations where it has the potential to clear someone’s name and get innocent people out of prison.

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