lock and chain

By Taylor Anderson

On February 29, 2016, the Fourth Circuit issued its published opinion regarding the criminal case United States v. Cowley. Shane Cowley (“Appellant”) appealed the district court’s denial of his motion seeking post-conviction DNA testing pursuant to the Innocence Protection Act (“IPA”). The Fourth Circuit affirmed the denial of Appellant’s motion, holding that Appellant’s motion was untimely.

Appellant Convicted of Several Crimes

On July 30, 1998, Jeff Stone (“Stone”) was shot and killed. Stone’s son witnessed the murder and gave descriptions that matched the general physical characteristics of Appellant and Ron Moore. Cowley was charged in a four-count indictment. The first three counts arose from the attempted robbery of Stone and the fourth was based on subsequent threats that Appellant made to a witness. To date, no one has been charged with Stone’s murder. A jury found Appellant guilty of all four counts.

Appellant subsequently filed a motion to vacate, but the district court eventually denied his motion. The Fourth Circuit later denied Appellant a certificate of Appealability (“COA”) and dismissed the appeal. In 2004, while Appellant’s case was still before the district court, the IPA became law. As relevant here, the IPA allows federal prisoners to move for court-ordered DNA testing under certain specified conditions. Although Appellant’s initial proceedings were complete in 2006, he did not file his IPA motion for post-conviction DNA testing until June 6, 2014. Appellant specified several items that he wanted to undergo DNA testing.

The district court issued an extensive opinion as to Appellant’s IPA motion and described the ten stringent requirements for relief under the IPA. The district court denied Appellant’s motion because it did not satisfy the last requirement—that the motion be made in a “timely fashion.” Appellant appealed this denial.

Whether Appellant Needed a COA Before the Fourth Circuit Could Evaluate IPA Motion

As an initial matter, the Fourth Circuit addressed whether the appeal was properly before the court. The government (“Appellee”) argued that the appeal was not properly before the Fourth Circuit because the district court originally denied a COA and the Fourth Circuit did not issue one. Therefore, the Fourth Circuit had to first determine whether Appellant needed a COA to appeal from the district court’s ruling on his IPA motion.

The Fourth Circuit explicitly held that an appeal from the denial of an IPA motion is not subject to the COA requirement. The Fourth Circuit said that its ruling is consistent with the plain language of the IPA. Specifically, the IPA says that it does not affect the circumstances under which a person may obtain DNA testing or post-conviction relief under any other law. Therefore, the Fourth Circuit determined that Appellant’s appeal was properly before the court.

Was Appellant’s IPA Motion “Timely”?

The IPA contains ten specific requirements that the movant must satisfy before a district court can order DNA testing. One of them is a requirement that the motion be “made in a timely fashion, subject to” certain rebuttable presumptions. The IPA confers a rebuttable presumption of timeliness on motions made within 60 months of enactment of the Justice For All Act (“Act”) of 2004 or within 36 months of conviction, whichever comes later. Appellant did not file his IPA motion until June 6, 2014, almost five years outside the window set forth in the Act; thus, the Fourth Circuit determined that Appellant’s motion was subject to a rebuttable presumption against timeliness.

The IPA presumption may be rebutted upon the court’s finding that any of four exceptions apply. Appellant contended that two of the four applied in this scenario.

The first exception that Appellant argued was that the presumption had been overcome for “good cause shown.” Appellant contended that he had shown “good cause” because he was incarcerated for the entire eight years between the passage of the IPA and the filing of his motion, and therefore, he could not obtain adequate legal counsel to help him with his motion. The Fourth Circuit abruptly denied this argument, holding that the mere fact that a prisoner is incarcerated and unable to search freely for an attorney cannot serve as the basis for the “good cause” finding. The Fourth Circuit stated that because nearly all persons bringing IPA motions will be incarcerated, allowing the mere fact of incarceration to satisfy the “good cause” exception would render the presumption meaningless. Thus, the Fourth Circuit did not disturb the district court’s ruling that Appellant has not shown “good cause” for his delay.

The second exception that Appellant argued was that the denial of his motion would result in a “manifest injustice.” The Fourth Circuit first recognized that this exception requires consideration of all relevant facts and circumstances surrounding the motion. The Fourth Circuit stated that Appellant, even prior to his trial, was aware of the underlying grounds for his claim that DNA testing might not exonerate him. Additionally, even though Appellant may have uncovered “new” evidence, Appellant was aware of this new evidence prior to his trial. Also, prior to his trial, Appellant was aware that the evidence he sought to have tested existed. The Fourth Circuit said, “[d]espite this, [Appellant] waited nearly eight years after the conclusion of his [] proceedings to file an IPA motion.” For this reason, the district court’s denial of Appellant’s IPA motion did not result in a “manifest injustice” to Appellant.

Judgment Affirmed

The Fourth Circuit held that Appellant did not successfully rebut the presumption against “timeliness” requirement of the IPA. For this reason, the Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court’s denial of Appellant’s motion seeking post-conviction DNA testing.