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New York Is (Hopefully) About To Make It Easier To Get Innocent People Out Of Prison
The Challenging Wrongful Convictions Act is headed to Gov. Kathy Hochul's desk.
It is hopefully about to become a lot easier to free those wrongfully convicted in New York's justice system — which is a pretty big deal, since the state currently ranks third in the nation for wrongful convictions. The New York State Assembly passed the Challenging Wrongful Convictions Act last week along party lines, and if Democratic Governor Kathy Hochul signs it (this week, hopefully), it will become law.
As it currently stands, those who plead guilty to crimes they did not actually commit are only able to challenge their convictions based on DNA evidence. While this may sound something like "common sense" to some, assuming those who plead guilty must actually be guilty, innocent people plead guilty all the time. Indeed, 18 percent of known exonerees pleaded guilty to crimes they didn't commit.
This new law would allow those who plead guilty to file claims of actual innocence based on things other than DNA evidence, and establish pathways for anyone wrongly convicted to prove their innocence. For instance, if evidence or expert testimony that was relied upon in court or as the basis of a plea agreement was later proven false; if the suspect was incapable, for reasons of mental disease or defect, of understanding or participating in the proceedings; improper conduct not appearing in the record that would have made possible a reversal of judgment; new evidence that, had it been presented at trial, would have likely resulted in a different outcome; if they were convicted of crimes they committed as a victim of sex trafficking; and more.
Giving the wrongfully convicted the ability to challenge evidence later proven to be false is especially important, given how often junk science sends people to prison.We are still regularly convicting people for causing "shaken baby syndrome" when we know for a fact that the criteria used to determine that a baby's death was caused by "shaking" is absolute nonsense. People are serving time in prison and are still convicted based on bite mark analysis, blood spatter analysis, fiber analysis and other CSI-inspired nonsense.
The bill will also allow those previously convicted of things that are no longer actual crimes to have their convictions vacated, and give those convicted of crimes the right to a post-conviction attorney for these challenges, and the right to view the evidence files of both the prosecution and the defense.
“When our laws change, we must consider the lingering effects of our old laws and how they may still be harming people,” said Assembly member Jeffrion Aubry. “For too long, our justice system incentivized plea bargains over trials, and we must ensure that individuals who may have been pressured into plea bargains as a result of that system have the same rights to redress. We must update our laws to ensure that anyone wrongfully or improperly convicted of a crime is able to clear their name, once and for all.”
Perhaps the most famous example of innocent people pleading guilty is the case of the Central Park Five, the five young Black men that police coerced into pleading guilty to the rape of the Central Park jogger. Three of the five, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, and Raymond Santana, have been instrumental in advocating for this bill to become law. They were "lucky" enough to be exonerated by DNA, but 90 percent of criminal cases don't involve any DNA whatsoever.
The interview technique that police in the United States practice, the Reid technique, is actually banned in several other countries, due to the fact that it is practically designed to elicit false confessions . Officers are legally allowed to lie to suspects and tell them they have enough evidence to convict them and send them to prison for life and that their only way out is to confess and plead guilty in order to get a lighter sentence. That's a bargain that a lot of people are willing to take under pressure.
We can't pretend we don't know that innocent people plead guilty when it's something we've seen before. We can't pretend we don't know that wrongful convictions don't happen when we know that they do. Because of that, those who have been convicted need to have recourse. That is the "price to pay" for police and prosecutors "getting" to have a system that makes it very easy and convenient for them to convict people who are not actually guilty.
Naturally, the bill has been opposed by the District Attorneys Association, which represents prosecutors in the state and is led by former member of the Assembly and current Washington County District Attorney Anthony Jordan.
“It would be an entirely unnecessary ‘fix’ for something that is not broken,” Jordan wrote in a letter to Democratic Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie. “In addition, the bill would overwhelm the criminal justice system, at a time when the next straw might be the one that breaks its back. Finally, the bill would eliminate finality in criminal convictions in this state, to the detriment of all New Yorkers.”
Again, New York has had more wrongful convictions than 46 other states, so clearly something is broken.
As understandable as it is, emotionally, "finality" for victims is just not a good enough reason to keep innocent people behind bars. While it may give victims peace of mind to believe they "got the guy," whether that is factually true or not, those who are imprisoned for crimes they didn't commit are also victims, and victimizing them to placate the victims of another crime is cruel and ridiculous. If prosecutors want to give victims that kind of peace of mind, they should be working toward a more accurate justice system. They should be pushing to outlaw the Reid technique and looking into some of their own practices as well. A recent study found that 550 wrongful death row convictions were the result of prosecutorial misconduct. If they want victims to have "finality" then they need to care more about whether the people they send to prison are actually guilty than they do about their own conviction records.
We have somehow moved from "it's better for 10 guilty people to escape than for one innocent person to suffer" to "It's better for an innocent person to suffer if that makes the victim of another person's crime feel better," and that just doesn't quite have the same ring to it. Something's gotta give — and it will, as long as Kathy Hochul signs this very important bill into law.
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