A District of Columbia law governing post-conviction DNA testing doesn't allow testing for skin cells that are invisible to the naked eye, the District of Columbia Court of Appeals ruled Thursday morning.
The city's Innocence Protection Act of 2001 allows for post-conviction DNA tests, but when it comes to skin tissue, limits testing to "visible" biological materials. Washington appears to be the only jurisdiction nationwide to deny tests of microscopic skin cells, according to the appeals court's opinion (PDF), but the judges wrote that they were bound to respect the text as it's written.
Charles Hood was appealing his first-degree murder conviction in the 1989 death of a 78-year-old woman. Hood unsuccessfully moved for DNA tests on evidence collected at the crime scene in the hopes of finding microscopic skin cells that might prove he was innocent.
Hood’s attorney, Washington solo practitioner Sydney Hoffmann, said Thursday that while she was disappointed, she believed the ruling showed that the judges were “not impressed that the D.C. Innocence Protection Act does not extend anywhere near the reaches of current DNA science.”
Hoffman said she is weighing whether to request a rehearing.
“I come at this from the perspective of representing guy who is 48 years old, incarcerated for 22 years, who’s been contesting consistently and vigorously his conviction,” Hoffman said. “There is a box of evidence in the case and it is available and he is simply seeking to have it tested.”
The Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project and the Innocence Network filed an amicus brief supporting Hood’s appeal, but a representative could not immediately be reached this afternoon. The U.S. attorney’s office, which prosecuted the case, declined to comment through a spokesman.
A jury found Hood guilty of first-degree murder in the death of Helen Chappelle, who died from injuries related to blunt force trauma to the head. Witnesses had reported seeing Hood run into Chappelle’s home, according to the opinion, and then heard yelling, which “turned to what sounded like screams of pain....Then there was silence.”
Police reported finding Hood inside the house. Chappelle was found semi-unconscious upstairs, and her left ring finger had been severed. Police reported that her bedroom “appeared to have been ransacked,” and prosecutors later accused Hood of cutting off Chappelle’s finger to try and take her rings.
At trial, Hood’s attorney claimed Hood had run inside because he had heard Chapelle calling out for help. A jury found him guilty of armed first-degree murder, first-degree burglary and other charges. In 2002, Hood filed a motion to vacate his conviction under the city’s then-recently enacted Innocence Protection Act. Given new technology available, Hood wanted to have evidence recovered by police – scissors, rings, a purse and other items – tested for DNA. A District of Columbia Superior Court judge denied the request.
The three-judge appeals panel found that even if the law did allow tests of microscopic skin cells, Hood had failed to offer a theory of how the presence of a third party’s skin cells on the evidence could help him prove that he was innocent. There was no evidence that anyone besides Hood was at the scene, the judges wrote, and Hood never identified a suspect who could be linked to the crime through DNA.
“In short, the discovery of a stranger’s DNA in trace skin cells would do exceedingly little, if anything, to rebut the overwhelming evidence of appellant’s guilt,” they wrote.