SOUTH CAROLINA (USA): TAKEN OFF DEATH ROW IN 2014, INTELLECTUALLY DISABLED KENNETH SIMMONS NOW GETS NEW TRIAL
July 25, 2017:
South Carolina prosecutors announced on July 25 that they would not appeal a trial court ruling, granting a new, non-capital trial to former death-row prisoner Simmons. Finding that prosecutors had presented false DNA testimony that "severely deprived" Simmons of his due process rights, a Dorchester County Circuit Judge overturned Simmons's conviction. (Source: DPIC, 25/07/2017)
Simmons was sentenced to die on March 2, 1999 for raping and killing 87-year-old Lily Bell Boyd in Dorchester County on September 1, 1996. The conviction was based on false and misleading DNA testimony that purported to link him to the murder and a confession obtained under questionable circumstances. Simmons's death sentence was vacated in 2014 and replaced with a life sentence after the South Carolina Supreme Court determined that he has Intellectual Disability.
The same SSC on June 7, 2016, in what they called an “extraordinary action ... reserved for the rarest of cases,” allowed Simmons to revive the DNA challenge. The SSC opinion asks the lower court to issue an order explaining why it rejected the DNA argument in the first place. Such an order would allow Simmons to further challenge his conviction. Prosecutors had initially asked Judge Doyet A. Early III to alter his 2016 decision granting Simmons a new trial.
On June 23, he declined, reaffirming his finding that the prosecution's "misrepresentation of the strength of the DNA evidence to the jury" was "overwhelming," given that the confession had been extracted from "an intellectually disabled man, after multiple non-recorded interrogations, who had falsely confessed to other crimes before confessing to the murder." Judge Early wrote that the prosecution had presented the jury with "confusing, misleading, and inaccurate" information about the DNA evidence, including showing the jury a chart that contained fabricated DNA results, using the chart to make additional incorrect claims about the DNA evidence during closing arguments, and falsely arguing that Simmons was the only possible source of the DNA.
During state post-conviction proceedings, the state's forensic witness recanted her testimony about the DNA, and the court found that her trial testimony "had no evidentiary value in identifying" Simmons. Simmons's efforts to obtain a new trial drew support from The Innocence Network and advocacy groups for people with disabilities, which stressed the increased risk of false confessions and wrongful conviction in cases with intellectually disabled defendants.