BBA Amicus Defends Attorney-Client Privilege and Access to DNA Testing

At the BBA, we pride ourselves on advancing the highest standards of excellence for the legal profession, facilitating access to justice, and serving the community at large – it’s all right there in our mission statement.   Rarely do we have the opportunity to take part in a single cause that covers all three goals, which is why we jumped at the chance to submit an amicus brief in the case of Commonwealth v. Wade (SJC-11913).

The case is of major importance to the BBA not only because it deals with those core issues – including access to justice and attorney-client privilege – but also because it stems from Chapter 278A, the state’s 2012 post-conviction DNA testing law, which the BBA played a pivotal role in drafting and enacting.  Specifically, it addresses whether a criminal defendant qualifies, under the Massachusetts post-conviction DNA testing law, for DNA testing of evidence from a crime he was convicted of in 1997.

Background – BBA Successfully Advocates for Post-Conviction DNA Testing Law

A brief history:

At issue in the case is interpretation of Chapter 278A, Section 3(b)(5), which permits new forensic testing if a defendant can show, inter alia, that the evidence has not already been subjected to the requested analysis.  It sets out five reasons why it would be justifiable for the requested analysis not to have been pursued, such that it should be pursued now.

(i) the requested analysis had not yet been developed at the time of the conviction;

(ii) the results of the requested analysis were not admissible in the courts of the Commonwealth at the time of the conviction;

(iii) the moving party and the moving party’s attorney were not aware of and did not have reason to be aware of the existence of the evidence or biological material at the time of the underlying case and conviction;

(iv) the moving party’s attorney in the underlying case was aware at the time of the conviction of the existence of the evidence or biological material, the results of the requested analysis were admissible as evidence in courts of the Commonwealth, a reasonably effective attorney would have sought the analysis and either the moving party’s attorney failed to seek the analysis or the judge denied the request; or

(v) the evidence or biological material was otherwise unavailable at the time of the conviction.

These prongs are nearly identical to the corresponding recommendation contained in Getting It Right.

The Basis for Wade

The trial judge in the Wade case interpreted Ch. 278A Section 3(b)(5) to require a lawyer to prove all of the prongs, rather than applying the disjunctive reading, as our brief argues and we believe the Legislature intended, that a lawyer must prove only a single prong.  Furthermore, the trial judge interpreted the fourth prong to require the attorney to show the “primary cause” or “actual reason” that DNA testing was not pursued at trial, applying a subjective standard to the “reasonable attorney” test.  Based on this interpretation, the trial judge required the defense attorney to violate attorney-client privilege by testifying on why the now requested DNA testing was not sought at the initial trial.

Our amicus brief, authored by a team from K&L Gates including former BBA Council member Mike Ricciuti, Kathleen Parker, and Patrick McCooe, argues that the fourth prong calls for an objective standard and that the law does not actually require a “primary cause” finding – the test is not to determine why the defendant’s attorney did not seek a different type of DNA testing at the time of trial, but rather, whether a reasonably effective attorney would have sought the requested analysis.  Thus, the judge erred in violating attorney-client privilege, and, in doing so, frustrated the purpose of the law in a way that could potentially chill future claims, denying wrongfully-convicted individuals a pathway to establish their innocence.

Oral Argument

The SJC heard oral argument on January 11 (watch the video here).  The Justices pushed both sides to explain where to draw the line on protecting attorney-client privilege.  Counsel for the defendant argued, much like our brief, that an attorney should never have to violate the privilege to testify, because the law’s standard is objective, asking only what a reasonably effective attorney would do, and not whether the attorney in a particular case was or was not reasonably effective.  In her words, “the piercing of the attorney-client privilege was extreme judicial overreaching. It was excessive.”  While she conceded that it would be appropriate for the court to ask the lawyer about his or her decision making, the “attorney-client privilege should be sacrosanct.”

Counsel for the Commonwealth took the opposite view, arguing in line with the Superior Court judge that the correct reading of the statute requires defense counsel to name the “primary cause” why testing was not pursued and that a judge would be justified in requiring them to speak on the issue regardless of privilege.  Furthermore, the Commonwealth “can always” call counsel to testify as to their reasoning in not getting then-available testing, even if the defendant is not claiming that the a reasonably effective trial attorney would have sought testing (see clause (iv) above).

The Decision

On July 29, the SJC issued its 6-0 decision (Chief Justice Gants was not present).  We were extremely pleased to find that it held in line with the arguments of our brief, that it was an abuse of discretion for the trial judge to deny Wade’s motion for DNA testing based on his misinterpretation of the statute requiring the attorney to demonstrate the “primary reason” why he did not seek the requested analysis.

The decision makes clear that the statute statue’s plain language means each of the five prongs in the statute “provides a moving party with alternate pathways to establish that he or she is entitled to the requested [DNA] analysis . . . . Indeed it would be nonsensical to attribute a conjunctive meaning to the word “or” as used in this section… ” (p. 12-13).  On the trial judge’s requirement of finding the “primary reason” or “actual reason” why DNA testing was not pursued at trial, the Supreme Court decision explains that this language does not appear in the act, and there is no other language indicating such a requirement (p.15).  Instead, the statute’s “reasonably effective attorney” test “is an objective one” (p. 16).  Thus, the trial judge erred when finding that attorney-client privilege had been waived, forcing trial counsel to reveal privileged communications, and denying Wade’s motion to strike those answers.  The “reasonably effective attorney” test “does not require testimony or an affidavit from trial counsel” (p.20).

The court reversed the motions denying scientific testing and the motion to strike the protected attorney-client privileged testimony and remanded the case to the Superior Court for an order permitting the requested DNA testing.

The outcome was truly a victory for access to justice and the practice of law.  We are proud to have played a role in helping to protect access to post-conviction DNA testing, a major tool in overturning wrongful convictions, and safeguarding one of the most important tenets of legal practice in attorney-client privilege.

– Jonathan Schreiber
Legislative and Public Policy Manager
Boston Bar Association