Va. Court Grants First-Ever Innocence Writ

By Maria Glod
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 13, 2008

A Virginia man found guilty of illegally possessing a gun is the first person exonerated by a 2004 state law that allows convicts to try to prove their innocence by presenting new, non-DNA evidence to a court.

The Virginia Court of Appeals yesterday granted a "Writ of Actual Innocence" to Darrell A Copeland, 20. The court found that the weapon Copeland had when he was arrested in November 2006 in Chesapeake was a gas gun, not an actual firearm.

Copeland is among 130 convicts who have gone to court asserting their innocence under that state law, which allows a person to present any sort of evidence, court officials said. Five of those cases are pending and 124 have been denied.

Kathleen A. Ortiz, Chesapeake public defender and Copeland's attorney, said the case shows the value in allowing felons a forum to present newly discovered evidence. She noted that the Virginia attorney general's office supported Copeland's request to have the charges thrown out.

"I consider it a victory because it does show that the process works," Ortiz said. "I hope it does not take a concession of error every time for a writ to be successful."

Virginia had long barred the introduction of new evidence more than three weeks after sentencing, but in 2001, the General Assembly began changing the law after some high-profile exonerations in the state and across the country.

A 2001 law gave inmates the right to ask for DNA tests at any time. The following year, Virginia voters approved a constitutional amendment that allows felons to present that scientific evidence to the Virginia Supreme Court. The 2004 law expanded the rule to allow inmates to submit new, non-DNA evidence such as fingerprints, ballistics, witnesses or recanted testimony.

Virginia is also reviewing DNA evidence in criminal files from the 1970s and 1980s. The review, launched in 2005, is intended to uncover any wrongful convictions.

Copeland, who had a robbery conviction as a juvenile, was arrested Nov. 26, 2006, after a crash that followed a police chase, according to court documents. After the crash, Copeland reached under the seat of the vehicle and refused to move his hands until officers threatened to use pepper spray on him. Police later found what appeared to be a semiautomatic pistol.

At Copeland's trial, a trooper testified that the gun was an unloaded pistol, according to court documents. Analysis later showed that the gun was a "replica pistol . . . not a functional firearm."

The writ means that Copeland will be released from state prison, where he was serving five years on the gun charge.

But Copeland's legal troubles are not over. He admitted in federal court to participating in multiple robberies of 7-Eleven stores and pleaded guilty to robbery and carjacking. He will be moved to federal prison to serve a 10-year sentence.

Virginia Attorney General Bob McDonnell supported the court's decision to grant the writ, spokesman Tucker Martin said.

"While serving in the Virginia General Assembly, the attorney general supported the legislation that created the current Writ of Actual Innocence," Martin said. "The court's decision today demonstrates that the criminal justice system works. This law has made the system even stronger."

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