The Maryland Supreme Court today affirmed the denial of a Petition for Post-Conviction DNA Testing filed by a person convicted of several criminal offenses, including murder. The petitioner had requested DNA testing of scientific identification evidence related to their conviction, but the court found that the petitioner had not met the two conditions required by the Post-Conviction DNA Testing Statute.
Facts of Satterfield v. State
A man drove to Dundalk to pick up his daughter from her grandparents’ home. As he unlocked the back door to enter the home, he was attacked from behind by a person who grabbed him around the throat. The attacker had a shirt pulled over their face, but the victim described them as having big arms. Two other men wearing Yankees baseball caps and armed joined the attacker in the alley, where they demanded money from the victim, beat him, took $3,000 from him, and asked for more money.
One of the witnesses, who was sleeping in the living room with her granddaughter, was awakened by a noise inside the house. Two men entered the home, yelled at her, pointed a gun at her, and took her cell phone. They later returned, dragging the victim into the house and upstairs. Gunshots were heard, and the victim was found on the bed while her husband was found on the floor, having sustained two gunshot wounds to his torso, causing his death.
Multiple witnesses testified to the events leading up to the crime, and the police recovered a gun, ammunition, and a sweatshirt from one of the suspect’s homes, which were determined to have been used in the shooting. They also found a cigarette butt in the alley behind the home, but DNA testing excluded one of the suspects as the source of the DNA on the cigarette butt.
DNA was later collected from a hat recovered in the backyard of the home, and the suspect was subsequently arrested by Baltimore County police.
The man was convicted of several crimes, including first-degree murder, armed robbery, and first-degree assault. The circuit court sentenced him to life plus 150 years, and his subsequent appeal to the Appellate Court was affirmed.
Years later, the petitioner filed a Petition for Post-Conviction Relief under the Uniform Post-Conviction Procedure Act. The petitioner claimed that DNA testing of the cigarette butt found at the crime scene could produce exculpatory or mitigating evidence. The State filed an answer and motion to dismiss, and the circuit court denied the petition without a hearing or explanation. Not saying that is what happened here but our criminal justice system tends to assume that criminals are wasting their time.
The petitioner filed a motion for reconsideration, which was also denied by the circuit court. A notice of appeal was then filed, and the Appellate Court transferred the case to the current court.
The petitioner also filed a Motion to Supplement the Record, seeking to include the transcripts of police interviews with two witnesses. However, this motion was denied.
Throughout the case, the State relied on several pieces of evidence to tie the petitioner and his co-defendants to the crime. This included the testimony of a firearms expert, DNA evidence, and cell phone records. The circuit court cited this evidence in denying the Petition for Post-Conviction Relief.
Two Conditions for DNA Testing
Under Maryland law, a person who has been convicted of a crime of violence has the right to file a petition for post-conviction DNA testing under the Post-Conviction DNA Testing Statute, which is outlined in Maryland Code Ann., Criminal Procedure § 8-201.
To request DNA testing, the petitioner must file a petition with the court that includes a request for the testing of scientific identification evidence that is related to their conviction. The evidence may include items such as blood, semen, or hair samples that were collected at the crime scene, or from the victim, or from the defendant.
The petitioner must also demonstrate that there is a reasonable probability that the DNA testing has the scientific potential to produce exculpatory or mitigating evidence that is relevant to their claim of wrongful conviction or sentencing. This means that the petitioner must show that the DNA testing has the potential to prove their innocence or show that their sentence should be reduced.
Additionally, the requested DNA test must employ a method of testing that is generally accepted within the relevant scientific community.
If the circuit court denies the petition, the petitioner may directly appeal to the Maryland Supreme Court. The court will then review the petition to determine whether the petitioner has met the requirements for DNA testing, and will make a decision accordingly.
Battle on Appeal
On appeal, the petitioner raises two issues. First, the petitioner believes that the cigarette butt should have been DNA tested because it has the potential to produce exculpatory evidence relevant to his case. He thinks that DNA testing could implicate and/or provide impeachment evidence against the witnesses and lead the jury to question their credibility as witnesses, thus making the evidence exculpatory. The petitioner contends that he would not have been convicted but for the testimony of one of the witnesses.
Second, the petitioner argues that the circuit court should have conducted a hearing or provided him with the opportunity to reply to the State’s answer before dismissing his petition. The petitioner believes that he should be given the opportunity to respond and challenge the State’s representation as a matter of fundamental fairness.
In response, the State asserts that DNA testing of the cigarette butt would not have resulted in the discovery of exculpatory evidence. According to the State, even if the DNA from the cigarette butt had been tested and determined to match that of either of the witnesses, that evidence would be neither exculpatory nor mitigating. Furthermore, even if the DNA testing revealed that the witnesses were “aiders and [abettors] . . . or . . . could have been used to impeach their credibility,” such evidence would be immaterial to the standard of relief under the applicable law.
Finally, on the procedural issue, the State contends that the law authorizes the circuit court, upon consideration of the State’s answer, to deny the Petition without a hearing and the petitioner’s response to the State’s answer.
The court first tackled the question of whether DNA testing of a cigarette butt could potentially produce exculpatory evidence relevant to the petitioner’s claim. The court determined that, as a matter of law, the facts presented did not warrant relief for the petitioner because the DNA on the cigaratte really does not matter all that much.
The court explained that the petitioner did not need to show that DNA testing had a reasonable probability to exonerate him, but rather that it had the scientific potential to produce evidence that would tend to show he did not commit the crime or that he was innocent. To assess whether a reasonable probability existed for this type of evidence, the court could consider various factors, including the nature of the item, its proximity to the crime, and the temporal proximity between when the perpetrator touched the item and when the crime occurred.
The court ultimately concluded that the petitioner had failed to establish that DNA testing of the cigarette butt was warranted. Although the cigarette butt was in physical proximity to the crime, it was not an instrumentality of the crime nor touched by any of the perpetrators. Furthermore, assuming that the DNA testing matched with either of the witnesses’ DNA, it would not have tended to disprove or negate the petitioner’s guilt. The petitioner’s presence at the scene was established by other evidence, and finding either of the witness’s DNA on the cigarette butt would not undermine their credibility because it would only confirm their testimony about being at the scene.
The court also noted that there were several logical explanations for why DNA testing of the cigarette butt would not produce exculpatory or mitigating evidence. Finding a third party’s DNA would not suggest that someone else committed the crime. Rather, it could only indicate that there was another individual in the vicinity who came into contact with the cigarette butt at some unknown time.
So the court held that the petitioner was not entitled to testing under Crim. Proc. § 8-201(d)(1)(i) because he failed to show that there was a reasonable probability that the results of the testing would be exculpatory or mitigating.
Did the Circuit Court Have to Hear Out the Petitioner? (Yes and… no)
The next argment the court addressed, and I alluded to it earlier, is whether the circuit court should have either provided him with the opportunity to reply to the State’s answer or conducted a hearing. Again, courts get a lot of appeals from prisioners and they get callous. The court walked us through Maryland Rule 4-701 et seq. which outlines the process for
- filing a post-conviction DNA petition
- including the required content of the petition
- the timeline for filing a response to the State’s answer
- when a court is required to hold a hearing.
If the court finds that the petitioner has standing to file the petition and the petition is filed in the appropriate court, and if there is specific scientific identification evidence that is related to the conviction, a method of DNA testing of the evidence that is generally accepted within the relevant scientific community, and there is or may be a reasonable probability that the testing has the scientific potential to produce exculpatory or mitigating evidence relevant to a claim of wrongful conviction or sentencing, the court shall hold a hearing. However, if the court finds that the petitioner has no standing or the facts alleged in the petition do not entitle the petitioner to relief, the court may deny the petition without a hearing. If the court declines to hold a hearing, it must enter a written order stating the reasons why no hearing is required.
That did not happen here. So reversal, right? It is a clear violation of violation of Maryland Rule 4-709(e).
The court said no. The Maryland high court However, a remand would be futile because the Petitioner’s assertions are obviously without merit. The court did not apply a more stringent standard than required, and the facts alleged in the Petition do not come close to satisfying the standard under Crim. Proc. § 8-201 for ordering DNA testing. Therefore, there is no reason to remand the case for further proceedings, and we affirm the circuit court’s denial of the Petition.