Iowa Supreme Court discusses the problem of wrongful convictions in Rhoades v. State of Iowa

Iowa Supreme Court discusses the problem of wrongful convictions in Rhoades v. State of Iowa, and the limitations on obtaining compensation under the state’s wrongful imprisonment statute.

“Remarkably, in the seven years between 1989 and 1996 in sexual assault cases referred to the FBI, DNA results excluded the prime suspect about twenty percent of the time and only about sixty percent matched or included the primary suspect. Peter Neufeld & Barry C. Scheck, Forward to NIJ Report, at
xxviii.2. …

The growing number of DNA-related exonerations provided the opportunity for retrospective study—specifically, the study of what went wrong in these cases where DNA evidence exonerated those that had been convicted of serious crimes. The retrospective study of these convictions showed that they were frequently based upon false confessions obtained from the defendant, eyewitness identification that proved to be unreliable, failure of the state to turn over exculpatory evidence, use of unreliable informant testimony, and ineffective assistance of counsel.

The vast majority of cases, however, are not decided after trial, but are resolved by plea bargaining. … Recently…scholars have devoted increased attention to the role of plea bargaining in false convictions. Just as the conventional wisdom that an innocent party does not confess has been challenged, so too has the conventional wisdom that innocent persons do not plead guilty. Many scholars now recognize that at least in some circumstances, an innocent person may rationally decide to plead guilty. First, in an era of harsh punishments and sentence enhancement, “[w]hen the deal is good enough, it is rational to refuse to roll the dice, regardless of whether one believes the evidence establishes guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, and regardless of whether one is factually innocent.” … (“The reality of sentencing differentials is generally enough to deprive defendants of any real choice in plea bargaining.”). Iowa has enacted a number of sentence enhancing statutes that could give rise to a risk of such false guilty pleas. Second, in a somewhat different context, a defendant who prevails in the appellate process may be willing to plead guilty to a lesser offense and obtain immediate release based on time served rather than experience delayed release depending upon the outcome of another trial. In Iowa, for instance, Curtis McGhee agreed to an Alford plea to avoid a life sentence, but later all charges were dismissed as a result of prosecutorial misconduct. Third, while it might be assumed that no one knows better than the defendant whether he committed the crime, this assumption may not always be true. A defendant might not have adequate knowledge of the elements of the crime and facts necessary to establish them to knowingly and intelligently plead guilty. … Thirteen percent of all wrongful convictions listed in the National Registry of Exonerations are the result of guilty pleas. According to the Innocence Project, 31 of the 330 postconviction DNA exonorees pled guilty to serious crimes. Additional evidence that guilty pleas may be inaccurate can be found in the record of mass exonerations arising from the Rampart and Tulia investigations in California and Texas. In these mass exonerations, defendants pled guilty eighty-one percent of the time. These defendants no doubt pled guilty because they feared they would do much worse if they proceeded to trial.

In light of the renewed attention to wrongful convictions, the obvious harm resulting from wrongful convictions, and recognition of the lack of available remedies, some twenty-seven states have enacted wrongful imprisonment statutes.

We have characterized the process under Iowa Code section 663A.1 as a two-step process. The first step involves determining whether the claimant meets the five statutory criteria required to be a wrongly imprisoned person. Iowa Code § 663A.1(1). If an individual meets the criteria, the second step is determining whether the individual has proven by clear and convincing evidence that the individual did not commit the offense or a lesser included offense, or that the offense in question was not committed at all. Iowa Code § 663A.1(2). With respect to the second prong, or the actual-innocence prong, we have emphasized that under the statute, the claimant has the heavy burden of proving actual innocence.

As we emphasized in McCoy and Dohlman, it is not enough for a person seeking compensation as a wrongfully imprisoned person to merely establish that a reviewing court determined the conviction was not supported by substantial evidence. McCoy, 742 N.W.2d at 598; Dohlman, 725 N.W.2d at 433. The claimant that does not show actual innocence by clear and convincing evidence is not entitled to compensation.

[I]n State v. Boone, we stated that a guilty plea that is not voluntary and knowing was “void.” … The question arises whether the legislature intended to disqualify from compensation those who plead guilty when the guilty plea later is found to be void, and thus have no effect, by the courts. In other words, did the legislature intend a void guilty plea, which has no effect whatsoever, to lead to disqualification under the statute?

In our decision on Rhoades’s postconviction appeal, we did not declare Rhoades innocent; we only determined that there was not sufficient evidence to support his guilty plea. We remanded to the district court for further proceedings. At that point, the State dismissed the case. The discretionary decision of the State to dismiss the case does not establish actual innocence. … However, because he has not established actual innocence, he is at most entitled to a remand to the district court for further proceedings in which he can make such a showing. …

Based on our review of the statute, we conclude that the guilty plea provisions of the Iowa wrongful imprisonment statute should be interpreted as a type of cause requirement that categorically bars those who have pled guilty. … We note that a blanket exclusion of otherwise qualified actually innocent persons from compensation because of a guilty plea has been subject to criticism. Only a very small percentage of those charged with felonies actually go to trial. For example, in Iowa only 1.5 percent of the felony convictions were the result of a jury trial in 2012. Thus, an interpretation of the statute that disqualifies all persons who plead guilty, regardless of the legal status of their plea at the time they seek compensation, dramatically narrows the class of persons entitled to compensation for wrongful imprisonment. Under this interpretation of the Iowa statute, one who pled guilty but can still prove actual innocence by a clear and convincing evidence is not entitled to compensation.

We also recognize the scholarship that suggests innocent individuals may plead guilty to crimes for a variety of reasons, “including ineffective assistance of counsel, overwhelming evidence of guilt based on false confessions or inaccurate forensics, financial and social reasons such as to avoid a costly, embarrassing trial, and pressure by busy defense lawyers and prosecutors.”

Although there are substantial arguments that a guilty plea should not disqualify a claimant from seeking compensation for wrongful imprisonment in all instances, we conclude—based on the language of the statute, the ability of the legislature to use qualifying language in other statutes related to exoneration, the nature of a guilty plea, the lack of a record generated in guilty plea cases, and the potential fiscal impact—that the legislature made a different judgment in 1997. Our job is to do the best we can in interpreting the meaning of legislation. We do not expand the scope of legislation based upon policy preferences.

In balancing all the considerations, we think the best interpretation of Iowa Code section 663A.1(1)(b) is that it categorically excludes all persons who plead guilty from Iowa’s wrongful imprisonment statute. As we have stated before, if we have missed the mark, the legislature may respond to correct it.

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