Wright v. Pennsylvania

Brief Filed: 11/08
Court: Pennsylvania Supreme Court
Year of Decision: 2011

Read the full-text amicus brief (PDF, 1.3MB)

Issue

Involves the lower courts’ interpretation that the Post Conviction DNA testing statute (which governs when convicted felons can have potentially exonerating DNA tests performed) does not allow access to DNA testing, if there has been a “voluntary” confession in the case

Index Topic

False Confessions

Facts

Wright was convicted of a 1991 robbery, rape and murder of an elderly woman after signing a confession written out for him by police following a custodial interrogation. At trial he sought unsuccessfully to suppress the confession on the grounds that it was obtained involuntarily. He now seeks previously unavailable, advanced DNA testing. However, efforts to get testing have been stymied by case law in Pennsylvania, in the form of a case by an intermediate appeals court regarding confession cases. That case, and now this one, declared that no person who confesses to a crime and whose confession is deemed “voluntary” by the trial court is eligible to obtain post-conviction DNA testing.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court agreed to review this case which involves the lower courts’ interpretation that the Post Conviction DNA testing statute (which governs when convicted felons can have potentially exonerating DNA tests performed) does not allow access to DNA testing, if there has been a “voluntary” confession in the case. (For these purposes, “voluntary” means that Miranda rights were read and there was no illegal police tactic used to extract the confession.) The specific issue on appeal is whether the existence of a voluntary confession precludes a prima facie finding that exculpatory results from DNA testing under Pennsylvania law would establish actual innocence. If a felon cannot make a prima facie case for innocence, DNA testing will not be ordered.

APA’s Position

APA filed an amicus brief to educate the court about social science data regarding false confessions and the many reasons that innocent people (whose innocence could well be proven through DNA testing) can and do confess to crimes they did not commit. APA’s brief asserts that scientific research and basic psychological science indicate that not every confession that is “voluntary” under the law is true. The brief also addresses the reasons why innocent people confess as well as the issue of how voluntary false confessions are difficult for judges, juries and others to discern.

Results

On Feb. 23, 2011, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania ruled that a confession, even if previously and finally adjudicated as voluntary, does not constitute a per se bar to establishing a prima facie case, and that convicted person may, therefore, obtain DNA testing. APA's brief was cited in reaching this outcome.