Maryland Man’s Alford Plea Costs Him the Opportunity to Request DNA Testing of New Evidence

DNA Double HelixWhen you or a loved one is facing criminal charges, there are many vitally important choices to make. Do you take your chances and go to trial? Do you plead guilty? Do you make some other sort of plea, such as an Alford plea? In one recent case before the Maryland Court of Appeals, the high court concluded that a man’s Alford plea functioned similarly to a guilty plea and prevented him from requesting DNA testing on newly discovered evidence.

Back in 1990, William Todd Jamison was facing multiple charges in a sex crime case. He had been indicted for posing as a police officer, stopping a female driver using a fake badge, and then using that apparent authority to handcuff the woman and put her in his car, after which he allegedly drove her to an apartment complex, dragged her into the woods, and raped her.

Facing what he believed to be substantial evidence against him, Jamison entered what’s called an Alford plea, which is named for the defendant in the 1970 U.S. Supreme Court case of Alford v. North Carolina. When a criminal defendant enters an Alford plea, he pleads guilty while at the same time continuing to maintain his innocence. In an Alford plea, the defendant does not admit guilt but does acknowledge that the prosecution has enough evidence that, if the case went to trial, a jury most likely would find him guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

Decades later, in 2008, Jamison asked for DNA testing. Specifically, he argued that certain slides containing cell tissue taken from the victim’s genital region had just been discovered and that they should be tested. A Circuit Court judge approved, and the swabs were tested. The man also filed a Petition for Writ of Actual Innocence. The state, in addition to contesting Jamison’s case on the merits, also argued that he could not now claim actual innocence after having already pled guilty.

Maryland’s highest court agreed with the state. One of the reasons for this outcome was the way that the state legislature worded the DNA testing statute. That law said that courts could only order post-conviction DNA testing if the identity of the perpetrator was at issue. In cases in which a criminal defendant pleads guilty, the identity of the perpetrator is not at issue, since the defendant has admitted that he was the perpetrator.

Since defendants who plead guilty cannot seek DNA testing under Maryland law as currently written, the court also had to decide whether an Alford plea counted as a guilty plea for the purposes of invoking this DNA testing statute. The court determined that it did. Such a plea “is the functional equivalent of a guilty plea” and “waives challenges to adverse rulings on pretrial motions and all procedural objections.”

The court also went on to rule that there was another reason Jamison’s request could not be granted. The law only allows a convicted person to bring a petition for a writ of actual innocence based upon newly discovered evidence if that new evidence creates “a substantial possibility … that the petitioner would not have been convicted if the DNA testing results had been known or introduced at trial.” This requirement poses a genuine problem for those who have pled guilty or entered Alford pleas, since they have never undergone a trial.

That ultimately dooms DNA testing requests for defendants like Jamison. Only after an accused person has gone through a full trial can the courts meaningfully perform this “substantial possibility” review and analysis. As the Court of Special Appeals ruled last year, and the high court upheld earlier this year, “where there was no trial, it would be utter speculation to attempt to construct what the imaginary trial might have consisted of. We may not hypothesize a mythical trial.”

The court’s ruling in Jamison’s case is just another piece of the puzzle a criminal defendant must consider when deciding whether to go to trial, plead guilty, plead nolo contendere, or enter an Alford plea. Experienced Maryland criminal counsel can help you better understand your options and meaningfully weigh the benefits and drawbacks of each option. Maryland criminal defense attorney Anthony A. Fatemi is an experienced practitioner with many years of experience advising and representing people facing criminal charges. To put this office’s skills and resources to work for you, contact us at 301-519-2801 or via our online form.

More blog posts:

Maryland Court Reviews Post-Conviction DNA Statute in Criminal Case, Maryland Criminal Lawyer Blog, Dec. 18, 2015

Sentencing Changes After a Plea Deal in Maryland, Maryland Criminal Lawyer Blog, June 18, 2014

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