MOUNT OLIVE, W.Va. -- Convicted of robbing and raping an 83-year-old woman, Joseph A. Buffey at 19 was no one's idea of a choirboy. A marijuana smoker and high school dropout, he was out thieving on the night in question 11 years ago and broke into the Salvation Army near the woman's home to steal the bell-ringing money.
He confessed to the rape and was sentenced to 70 years in the maximum security prison here in southern West Virginia where road names end in "Hollow" and "Creek" and coal is king. But for much of the past decade he has claimed that he was pressed into the confession and a plea deal by the police and his lawyer. He said he never entered the victim's home, never touched her.
After years of being ignored, Mr. Buffey recently learned that DNA tests from intimate material at the crime scene establish with certainty the identity of the rapist: another man incarcerated at a different state prison who had a history of assaulting women.
If proceedings go as his lawyers hope, Mr. Buffey's story will be one more in the several hundred exonerations nationwide brought about partly by new DNA techniques, many involving false confessions. But it took 18 months of litigation to get the state to test the DNA against its database of felons, and Mr. Buffey's lawyers say his case is therefore something more: proof that laws are needed to remove the databases from the exclusive grip of prosecutors and law enforcement to make them available to defense lawyers.
"There is incredible exculpatory power in the databases that the government has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on over the years," said Nina Morrison, a senior lawyer in the case. "But law enforcement runs the databases, and even when you go to court to force their hand, they throw up roadblocks. And judges say they don't have the power to force them."
Steven Benjamin, president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said getting access to these databases was a major concern and one that is on the agenda of his group's winter meeting next month in Washington.
"This is a national problem, a huge and recurring one," he said. "Juries expect the defense to be able to prove that if your client didn't do it, who did? Science doesn't belong to the government, but they act like it does. Unless the defense is given access to this information, the playing field remains uneven in criminal justice."
Almost every state has a law permitting some post-conviction DNA testing (although the Supreme Court has ruled that it is not a constitutional right). But only nine -- Colorado, Georgia, Illinois, Maryland, Mississippi, New York, North Carolina, Ohio and Texas -- have laws granting defendants access to the DNA databases, known as the Combined DNA Index System, or Codis.
Many legal experts, even some prosecutors, think that number needs to be greatly expanded as states and the federal government increase the size of the databases.
"You'd think there would be a federal rule or a statute in every state creating the clear obligation to do a Codis search in any case where the defense wants it," said Brandon L. Garrett, a professor of law at the University of Virginia.
In a case last year in Washington, D.C., DNA evidence was used to free a man who had spent more than two decades in prison for a rape he had not committed, but the United States attorney did not disclose the identity of the man linked by Codis to the crime. Sandra K. Levick of the Public Defender Service there has resorted to the Freedom of Information Act to try to oblige the government to reveal his identity.
"This is terribly vital information, not only to exonerate the innocent but also to learn what went wrong and to use that knowledge to improve our criminal justice system," Ms. Levick said.
In the case of Mr. Buffey, Barry Scheck, co-director of the Innocence Project, which is working to free him, contended that the state had no interest in exploring DNA evidence after it had Mr. Buffey's confession. "This state was more interested in covering up what happened here than in finding the person who committed a vicious rape of an old woman and could have been on the streets committing more of them."
The assistant prosecutor, David J. Romano, vigorously rejected Mr. Scheck's accusations. Mr. Buffey, he said, "is not low IQ." He continued: "Raping an 83-year-old lady is about as bad as it gets. Why would someone plead guilty and say they were sorry several months later if they really had no participation in it? The fact that someone else's DNA has been identified only tells us that someone else took part. Buffey could have penetrated without ejaculation."
Sitting in a loose khaki uniform in the prison's tiny cinder-block visiting room, Mr. Buffey said he had not "slept a wink" since he heard the news of the DNA match. "They have finally actually found who it was," he said. Asked why he confessed to something he had not done, he replied, "I know it's hard to believe, but you'd be surprised what you'd confess to under certain circumstances."
The details of Mr. Buffey's case are murky. He was with two men that night, both recreational drug users who had been in trouble before, and they were a quarter-mile from the rape victim's house in the town of Clarksburg. The victim was the mother of a Clarksburg police officer, so detectives took the crime personally, and the town's 16,000 inhabitants were stunned. The victim, who is still alive at 94 but suffering now from dementia, told the police then that there had been one attacker who raped and sodomized her after leading her around her house with a knife in search of cash. She never mentioned a second man.
Mr. Buffey's lawyer, Thomas Dyer, said in a telephone interview that he assumed Mr. Buffey had participated in the rape and robbery and that was why he sought a plea deal. Mr. Dyer believed -- mistakenly -- that given Mr. Buffey's age, he would get a minimal sentence and serve only 10 years.
Mr. Buffey said that at Mr. Dyer's urging he confessed and apologized but then regretted it and tried to take back the plea. Mr. Dyer said it was too late. Later Mr. Buffey unsuccessfully sought a new trial, partly on grounds of lawyer incompetence.
The Innocence Project lawyers got involved in this case after Mr. Buffey sent them a letter a few years ago. When they ran the test on the victim's rape kit in the spring of 2011 and it showed that it was not Mr. Buffey's DNA present at the crime scene, they asked to run the results through the West Virginia database of felons to see if another match existed. The judge approved, but the prosecutor refused, saying that the laboratory that had done the testing was not certified by the state. The judge then said he did not have the authority to order the state to violate its own rules.
The Innocence Project offered to run the test again through a certified lab. But the prosecutor turned down the request, saying there was "no good reason to do so" and adding, "the state does not believe such testing will or can prove the defendant's innocence after his guilty plea."
The judge ordered the test to go forward. The state again resisted but a month ago backed down.
Some prosecutors are open to a change in rules governing Codis. "We, as law enforcement and prosecutors, are obligated to seek the truth and follow the evidence, and DNA should be entered into Codis," said Scott Burns, executive director of the National District Attorneys Association. "It seems like there should be laws for it, and I agree that the defense should be given the information."
Controversy also exists over who should be included in Codis -- all felons or also those charged but not yet convicted. The Supreme Court will hear a case from Maryland on this issue early this year.
Meanwhile, Mr. Buffey remains in prison, awaiting a March hearing when his lawyers will argue that the DNA match with another inmate means he should not spend another day behind bars.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.