An Erie, Pa., man who was sentenced to 75 years in prison for three rapes he claims he did not commit has won an important victory in the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in his battle for access to DNA evidence that he says will prove his innocence.
A unanimous three-judge panel revived the case, Grier v. Klem, and ordered new hearings on the issue of whether Pennsylvania's rules on DNA testing can have unfair results (pdf) by barring access to DNA evidence whenever a defendant has already confessed to the crime.
The panel found that a lower court erred in tossing out Emmitt Grier's §1983 civil rights suit on the grounds that it violated the Heck rule. Named for the U.S. Supreme Court's 1994 decision in Heck v. Humphrey, the rule bars state prisoners from bringing a civil rights suit "if the success of that claim would undermine the prisoner's conviction or sentence, unless that conviction or sentence has already been called into question."
But the 3rd Circuit found that when the prisoner is suing for access to DNA evidence, the Heck rule simply doesn't apply.
"Even if Grier does prevail on this §1983 claim, he will merely gain access to biological evidence, which in and of itself cannot invalidate or undermine his convictions," 3rd Circuit Judge Franklin S. Van Antwerpen wrote in an opinion joined by Judges D. Michael Fisher and Thomas M. Hardiman.
The ruling is a victory for Grier's team of court-appointed lawyers -- Charles T. Kotuby Jr., Donald B. Ayer, John D. Goetz and Anderson T. Bailey of Jones Day's Washington, D.C., and Pittsburgh offices.
But Van Antwerpen stressed that the court's ruling was a narrow one.
"We decide only that a party can use a Section 1983 claim to request access to evidence for postconviction DNA testing. We do not decide that the denial of access necessarily violates a prisoner's due process rights," Van Antwerpen wrote.
The decision in Grier's case comes as the law on DNA testing is very much in flux, both nationally and in Pennsylvania.
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has already heard argument in Commonwealth v. Wright, a case that will decide whether a confession should bar a petitioner's access to post-conviction DNA testing.
In an interview, Kotuby said that a favorable ruling in the Wright case could pave the way for Grier to win his claim.
The 3rd Circuit appeal in Grier's case was put on hold to await the outcome of the U.S. Supreme Court's decision last year in District Attorney's Office v. Osborne, an Alaska case that was widely viewed as potentially establishing a federal constitutional right to DNA testing.
But the Osborne decision proved to be a narrow one in which the justices held that there is no federal right to demand DNA testing, and that, since Alaska has no DNA statute, the convict was also unable to bring a procedural due process claim.
After Osborne, it was clear that convicts no longer had the option of pursuing a substantive due process claim, but the justices hinted that a procedural due process claim such as Grier's might succeed.
Now the 3rd Circuit has decided Grier's appeal on the narrowest of grounds, declaring that Senior U.S. District Judge Maurice B. Cohill of the Western District of Pennsylvania erred by dismissing it under the Heck rule and should instead have allowed Grier to challenge Pennsylvania's DNA laws on procedural due process grounds.
Van Antwerpen noted that, under Osborne,"there is no substantive due process right to access DNA evidence," and that procedural due process "does not require that a district attorney disclose all potentially exculpatory evidence for postconviction relief to a prisoner."
As a result, Van Antwerpen said, "by deciding Grier's Section 1983 claim is not barred, we have not determined whether his due process rights have been violated."
But Van Antwerpen flatly rejected the argument of Erie County Assistant Solicitor Matthew J. McLaughlin, who argued that a remand of the case to Cohill would be "pointless" because there is no state or federal authority that would afford Grier a due process right to obtain post-conviction DNA testing.
"Whether Grier will successfully demonstrate that his due process rights have been violated in a subsequent proceeding is beyond the scope of this appeal and is beside the point," Van Antwerpen wrote.
McLaughlin, in an interview, said no decision has yet been made about whether to appeal the 3rd Circuit's decision.