CLARKSBURG, W.Va. — After serving 15 years in prison for a crime DNA proved another man committed, Joseph Buffey walked out of the Harrison County Courthouse on Tuesday a free man.
“I feel elated. It’s over finally,” Buffey said, standing on the steps outside the courthouse.
Buffey had been set to stand trial Tuesday on the same charges for which he spent 15 years in prison. Harrison prosecutors have argued that there is other evidence linking Buffey to the crime, but Buffey’s lawyers say DNA exonerated him a long time ago.
Nevertheless, Buffey made a deal with prosecutors, which a judge approved Tuesday, to guarantee his release from jail. The deal also ensures that he won’t have to register as a sex offender.
“It’s really a shame it took this long,” said Allan Karlin, one of Buffey’s lawyers, after the hearing Tuesday. “In 2002, the state had DNA results that showed Joseph Buffey wasn’t guilty, but they basically ignored it.”
Buffey entered a Kennedy plea Tuesday to charges of robbery, burglary, breaking and entering and destruction of property, stemming from a 2001 incident at the home of an 83-year-old woman, who was sexually assaulted. A Kennedy plea doesn’t require a defendant to admit guilt.
“I didn’t do it, but I believe it is in my best interest to enter into the plea,” Buffey told the judge Tuesday.
Buffey was sentenced to time served, as the sentence for the charges he admitted to Tuesday amounts to about the same time he has already served. Harrison Circuit Judge J. Lewis Marks Jr. ordered his immediate release.
Marks didn’t attempt to quiet Buffey’s friends and family, who filled the courtroom. They broke into applause at the order of Buffey’s release.
Marks noted that Buffey has served as much, if not more, time in prison than many defendants convicted of murder in West Virginia who are given the chance to go before a parole board.
Buffey served 15 years after pleading guilty in 2002 to the robbery and sexual assault of the woman. He quickly asked to back out of his plea, saying it had been coerced and that he had been given wrong information about sentencing possibilities.
He also requested the results of a DNA test in the case. The test had been completed at the time Buffey pleaded guilty — and indicated that Buffey was not the assailant — prior to his plea being finalized, but neither he nor his lawyer had seen the results, despite asking for them.
Michael Hissam, another of Buffey’s lawyers, said outside the courthouse Tuesday that he is confident Marks would have found Buffey not guilty of the charges, but he added the deal was too good to pass up. The trial would have been held before Marks, rather than a jury.
“He gets to leave a free man,” Hissam said. “This is more about finality.
“This Kennedy plea will guarantee that he can move on with his life and be the father he always wanted to be.”
The deal Buffey made with prosecutors Tuesday dismissed any charges related to sexual assault, which would require Buffey to register as sex offender and prohibit him from having contact with his minor daughter.
Buffey’s due-process rights had been violated by prosecutors in 2002, the Supreme Court ruled last year, and it sent the case back to a Harrison County judge for Buffey to withdraw his plea.
Prosecutors vowed to take Buffey to trial on the charges. They also brought back charges against him that had been dismissed as part of his original deal.
Last month, prosecutors announced an indictment against Buffey on a charge of statutory rape. As part of his deal in 2002, prosecutors had agreed not to pursue a statutory rape case against him.
His lawyers said Tuesday the indictment was returned against the wishes of the woman with whom Buffey had a consensual relationship 15 years ago. That relationship led to the birth of the couple’s daughter.
“Had Buffey been convicted of the newly filed charge, he would have been subject to mandatory lifetime sex offender registration, which would have not only involved onerous reporting requirements but prevented him from playing any meaningful role in the life of his daughter, his nieces, or any future children he may have,” a news release from lawyers with the Innocence Project on Tuesday states.
Barry Scheck, the co-director of the Innocence Project, said in the release that Tuesday’s plea deal is bittersweet.
“It is unfortunate that he will have to live with a conviction for a crime he didn’t commit,” Scheck said, “but he is putting an end to a 15-year legal battle and can focus on building a new life with his daughter and other family members.”