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NY Governor Kathy Hochul Should Sign the Challenging Wrongful Convictions Act into Law

New York is just one of just a handful of states that won’t allow people convicted of crimes to obtain post-conviction relief with non-DNA evidence of innocence.

10.02.23 By Barry Scheck

(Image: Elijah Craig II/Innocence Project)

(Image: Elijah Craig II/Innocence Project)

Today, freed and exonerated people, advocates, and policy makers gathered in New York City to call on Governor Kathy Hochul to help innocent New Yorkers in prison facing a nightmarish scenario.

Under current law and through court precedent, New Yorkers who pled guilty to a crime can only challenge their conviction with new evidence of innocence if the evidence was derived from DNA testing.  

At the Innocence Project, which I co-founded in 1992, we have litigated hundreds of wrongful conviction cases, leading to the release and exoneration of more than 200 people. In 31 years of this work, we’ve seen that it is not uncommon for innocent people to plead guilty. In fact, of the more than 3,000 exonerations of innocent people which have been identified nationally since 1989, 24% pled guilty, according to the National Registry of Exonerations (NRE). On the other hand, among the 347 exonerations in New York State, NRE data shows that DNA played a role in only 54 of those cases.  

So it plainly follows that the prohibition against proving innocence through non-DNA evidence is not only unfair and arbitrary but the data shows it keeps an intolerable number of innocent people in New York prisons with no way to challenge their wrongful convictions. Governor Hochul has a chance to fix this. She can sign the Challenging Wrongful Convictions Act, passed by the New York Senate and State Assembly, into law. As an attorney who has witnessed firsthand the trauma that wrongful conviction brings to our clients and their families, I urge her to do so. 

Why do innocent people plead guilty? From the first moment a person is charged with a crime, all actors in the system—defense lawyers, prosecutors and judges—have an interest in a speedy resolution, which is why 95% of felony convictions in the United States are obtained through plea bargains. 

Innocent people charged with serious crimes who cannot afford bail feel extraordinary pressure to plead guilty because they fear being subjected to violence or sexual assault in pre-trial detention facilities like Rikers Island, where there is an ongoing humanitarian crisis. In 2022, 17 people died in custody at Rikers Island or shortly after being released. Furthermore, people held at Rikers don’t have regular access to their lawyers and are not able to fully participate in their own defense. Incarceration in horrific conditions and isolation from family and friends incentivizes people accused of crimes to try to get home as soon as possible, even if that means pleading guilty to crimes they did not commit.

Then there’s the trial penalty, the grim reality that courts and prosecutors threaten to impose much harsher sentences than the plea offer if a client goes to trial and loses. “I never thought I would accept a guilty plea – until my life was hanging in the balance,” said Rodney Roberts, my colleague at the Innocence Project and an exoneree. He describes the decision to plead guilty to a sexual assault he did not commit as “sabotaging and saving himself at the same time.” His defense attorney told him that he would likely lose if he went to trial and would be sentenced to life in prison. He was advised to take a plea offer of a seven-year prison sentence where he would likely serve only two years in prison. Eager to get home to see his young son, and aware of racial bias in the criminal legal system, Mr. Roberts, who is Black, took the plea. He wound up spending 18 years in custody, both in prison and civil confinement, before DNA proved his innocence in 2013. 

 

Data confirms that Mr. Robert’s decision was perfectly logical. Black and brown people are disproportionately impacted by the criminal legal system. A recent report by the NRE, Race and Wrongful Convictions in the United States 2022, confirms alarming racial disparities in the criminal legal system. Black people are seven times more likely than white people to be falsely convicted of serious crimes. Innocent Black people were almost eight times more likely than innocent white people to be falsely convicted of rape, The NRE also found in a 2015 study that innocent people who plead guilty almost always get lighter sentences than those who are convicted at trial, “Almost three-quarters of homicide exonerees who pleaded guilty were convicted of murder. It appears that the great majority did so to avoid the risk of execution.” 

Given what we know about the realities of the criminal legal system, it’s shocking that New York is just one of just a handful of states that won’t allow people convicted of crimes to obtain post-conviction relief using non-DNA evidence of innocence. Even worse, post-conviction procedures in New York do not clearly authorize judges to order discovery of information that prosecutors, innocence organizations, and even judges themselves would like to obtain from third parties to make sure justice is done. 

The Challenging Wrongful Convictions Act provides practical, measured, efficient solutions to the problems faced by innocent New Yorkers who were pressured into pleading guilty to crimes they didn’t commit. Governor Hochul has vowed to fight for justice for all New Yorkers. She should sign this legislation. Those who are experiencing these grave injustices desperately need a champion.

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The post NY Governor Kathy Hochul Should Sign the Challenging Wrongful Convictions Act into Law appeared first on Innocence Project.


This content originally appeared on Innocence Project and was authored by Barry Scheck.

Citations

[1] News - Innocence Project ➤ https://innocenceproject.org/news/[2] Exoneration Detail List ➤ https://www.law.umich.edu/special/exoneration/Pages/detaillist.aspx?View=%7BFAF6EDDB-5A68-4F8F-8A52-2C61F5BF9EA7%7D&FilterField1=Group&FilterValue1=P[3] New Yorkers Challenging Wrongful Convictions - Innocence Project ➤ https://innocenceproject.org/petitions/new-yorkers-challenging-wrongful-convictions/[4]https://www.law.umich.edu/special/exoneration/Documents/Race%20Report%20Preview.pdf[5] Challenging Wrongful Convictions act Archives - Innocence Project ➤ https://innocenceproject.org/tag/challenging-wrongful-convictions-act/[6] New York Archives - Innocence Project ➤ https://innocenceproject.org/tag/new-york/[7] wrongful conviction Archives - Innocence Project ➤ https://innocenceproject.org/tag/wrongful-conviction/[8]https://www.facebook.com/sharer/sharer.php?u=https://innocenceproject.org/news/ny-governor-kathy-hochul-should-sign-the-challenging-wrongful-convictions-act-into-law/[9] x.com ➤ https://twitter.com/intent/tweet?text=NY%20Governor%20Kathy%20Hochul%20Should%20Sign%20the%20Challenging%20Wrongful%20Convictions%20Act%20into%20Law&url=https://innocenceproject.org/news/ny-governor-kathy-hochul-should-sign-the-challenging-wrongful-convictions-act-into-law/[10]//innocenceproject.org/news/ny-governor-kathy-hochul-should-sign-the-challenging-wrongful-convictions-act-into-law/[11]if(window.print)window.print()[12] Gov. Hochul Should Sign the Challenging Wrongful Convictions Act into Law ➤ https://innocenceproject.org/news/ny-governor-kathy-hochul-should-sign-the-challenging-wrongful-convictions-act-into-law/[13] Gov. Hochul Should Sign the Challenging Wrongful Convictions Act into Law ➤ https://innocenceproject.org/news/ny-governor-kathy-hochul-should-sign-the-challenging-wrongful-convictions-act-into-law/#[14] Request Representation - Innocence Project ➤ https://innocenceproject.org/submit-case/[15] LISTEN: How A Family Came Together to Exonerate Timothy Cole ➤ https://innocenceproject.org/news/listen-how-a-family-came-together-to-reverse-timothy-coles-wrongful-conviction/[16] Gov. Hochul Should Sign the Challenging Wrongful Convictions Act into Law ➤ https://innocenceproject.org/news/ny-governor-kathy-hochul-should-sign-the-challenging-wrongful-convictions-act-into-law/[17] LISTEN: Elizabeth Ramirez Shares About Her Wrongful Incarceration ➤ https://innocenceproject.org/news/listen-elizabeth-ramirez-shares-her-heartbreaking-experience-in-prison-for-a-crime-she-did-not-commit/[18] Gov. Hochul Should Sign the Challenging Wrongful Convictions Act into Law ➤ https://innocenceproject.org/news/ny-governor-kathy-hochul-should-sign-the-challenging-wrongful-convictions-act-into-law/[19] Innocence Project ➤ https://innocenceproject.org/