Court rules innocence supersedes guilty plea
Houston Chronicle By Associated Press
December 18, 2002
AUSTIN -- A defendant's actual innocence is more important than a guilty plea, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals ruled today in siding with a man who admitted to sexual assault only to later produce evidence that would exonerate him.
Defense attorneys hailed the ruling as critical to keeping the justice system open to defendants who are convicted but can later prove their innocence.
The court had already determined that a defendant can appeal when new evidence contradicts a guilty verdict during trial. But it hadn't decided what to do with someone who pleads guilty to a crime. The court ruled 5-4 on a case from Dallas County. The defendant's new claim of innocence, with the evidence to back it up, outweigh his previous guilty plea, the court said.
Punishing an innocent person violates due process, the court majority said in an opinion written by Judge Tom Price. "The purpose of criminal proceedings is to separate the guilty from the innocent," Price wrote. "The guilty plea process is not perfect." Wesley Ronald Tuley went to trial on aggravated sexual assault charges in 1997.
Facing a deadlocked jury, he pleaded guilty rather sit for another trial and the possibility of life in prison if convicted. He had already spent 10 months in jail and would stay there until the case was resolved. He also said he could not afford to keep his attorney during another trial and was addicted to drugs. Tuley was sentenced to 10 years community supervision. The supervision was later revoked and he was sent to prison. Tuley took another two years to file his habeas corpus appeal, noting that his accuser had recanted her testimony. She provided sworn testimony that she made up the charges because she didn't like Tuley and his relationship with her mother.
When presented with the new evidence, Tuley's trial court recommended his exoneration. The appeals court agreed, ruling that no rational jury would have convicted Tuley based on the new evidence. Wednesday's ruling ordered him returned to Dallas County for authorities to look at the case again, although one of his attorneys said he'll likely be freed as soon as possible.
One of Tuley's attorneys, Keith Hampton of the Texas Criminal Defense Lawyers Association, said the ruling was important for any defendant who can produce innocence. "The stakes were very high in this case," Hampton said.
"Nobody wants to recognize they have an innocent person in the system. He ain't the only one. There are plenty of innocent people in there." Dallas County's appeals attorney, Laura Anne Coats, declined immediate comment.
The state raised several arguments against Tuley, including the possibility that his case would spawn a wave of defendants who plead guilty for lesser sentences only to later claim they're innocent. Judge Barbara P. Hervey wrote the dissenting opinion, noting that Tuley was afforded "awesome constitutional protections" to a fair trial and he gave a legally valid and voluntary guilty plea.
Tuley bargained for his original sentence that initially kept him out of prison. He only challenged the plea after breaking the law and getting locked up, the dissenting opinion said. Tuley's case should be considered for executive clemency, or at least disposed of solely on his special circumstances without the sweeping ruling the court issued today, Hervey wrote. The dissenting judges also disputed the trial court's recommendation that Tuley be exonerated. The new evidence he presented raises doubt about his guilt, but does not prove his innocence, they said.
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