In a ruling that may need more rulings, the State Supreme Court today more clearly defined post-conviction DNA testing in criminal cases but reaffirmed the conviction of Alexander Riofta, who sought just such a DNA test to prove his innocence. We've told you before about Riofta, who in 2001 was found guilty of first-degree assault, a case linked to the 1998 gang-related massacre at a Vietnamese karaoke bar in Tacoma, the Trang Dai, which left five dead and six wounded. He has been in prison eight years based on questionable eyewitness testimony. Riofta has contended that a white hat that flew off the head of the gunman - found at the scene but never tested for DNA - would show he's not the shooter. Additionally, in 2002, Kristi Minchau, a Tacoma attorney who represented a gang member convicted in the Trang Dai killings, wrote to the AG's office during Riofta's appeal, insisting her client told her "who actually committed the shooting for which Alexander Riofta has been convicted and why the victim lied about the shooter's identity." If Riofta "has been wrongly convicted, he deserves a chance at proving it," she said, supporting his DNA-test appeal.
The appeal was brought by associate law professor Jackie McMurtrie (above) and her UW Law Clinic's Innocence Project Northwest. Riofta's sister, Katherine Riofta of Seattle, has also been publicly lobbying on his behalf, in the belief, she told SW, that "Alex was misidentified and wrongly convicted, and they know it."
Katherine Riofta this morning said the case is already being appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. "Its very disappointing the [state] court ruled to deny testing and waited this long to release its opinion. I have higher hopes for the case at the federal level," she said.
The high court's 6-3 decision today clarified that the legal basis for post-DNA tests - "significant new information" - includes DNA test results that did not exist at the time of trial and that are material to the perpetrator's identity, regardless of whether DNA testing could have been performed at trial. But the majority ruled that Riofta, in his appeal, "failed to establish the likelihood that the DNA evidence he seeks would demonstrate his innocence." In a nutshell, the justices did not believe that Riofta's significant new evidence was strong enough to warrant overturning his conviction.
"In this case," writes Justice Barbara Madsen, "the trial court [in an appeal review] properly concluded Riofta failed to satisfy the statutory standard, considering the strength of the eyewitness identification, the evidence of motive, and the limited probative value of the DNA evidence sought. Because the trial court did not abuse its discretion in denying Riofta's motion for postconviction DNA testing, we affirm." In a dissent, Justice Charles Johnson said the ruling "created an extra burden" beyond the legislature's intent. Justice Tom Chambers authored a second dissent, "mainly to urge legislative intervention and clarification on an issue that is so central to our criminal justice system."