As state legislatures nationwide end their 2007 sessions (or adjourn for the summer), many of them have made unprecedented progress in adopting reforms that can prevent wrongful convictions. The Innocence Project works with local advocates – and directly with policymakers nationwide – to implement reforms that address the causes of wrongful convictions.
Every exoneration is a “learning moment” about the causes of wrongful convictions. Collectively, the 204 DNA exonerations nationwide are both a mandate and a roadmap for reform. By making sure that policies meaningfully reflect the lessons of these exonerations, we are able to prevent more people from enduring this injustice in the future.
In close collaboration with local advocates and members of the
, the Innocence Project pursues reform in several priority areas that can greatly reduce the likelihood of wrongful convictions while ensuring that people are able to prove their innocence after they have been convicted. These
Eyewitness identification reform
Preventing false confessions
Access to post-conviction DNA testing
Crime lab oversight
Creating criminal justice reform commissions (or Innocence Commissions)
Compensation for people who have been exonerated
Below are brief highlights of some of the progress in state legislatures in the last few months. In each of these states, the Innocence Project worked closely with local advocates; in several states, Innocence Project staff and exonerees testified in support of reforms.
The passage of Vermont’s Senate Bill 6 put a particularly comprehensive set of reforms into motion. Innocence Project staff and local advocates (including exoneree
) worked closely with legislators to craft the reforms and testified in support of the bill.
As passed, Senate Bill 6 grants post-conviction access to DNA testing that can prove innocence. The bill also provides compensation to wrongfully convicted people after they are exonerated (up to $60,000 for each year of wrongful incarceration).
The Vermont bill also establishes two important study committees: a Preservation of Evidence Study Committee and an Eyewitness Identification and Custodial Interrogation Recording Study Committee. Both of these committees will report their findings on best practices and make recommendations to the Vermont Legislature for the next legislative session.
West Virginia passed Senate Bill 82, which reforms eyewitness identification procedures by immediately mandating several key reforms (confidence statements, instructions and creating a written record of the entire identification procedure). The bill also created a task force to study and identify best practices for eyewitness identification; that task force will be required to present its findings to the legislature by December 2008.
Maryland passed House Bill 103 which required state law enforcement agencies to develop written policies regarding eyewitness identification. Maryland also addressed the quality of forensic science in its crime labs by passing Senate Bill 351, which creates a unique oversight structure that applies existing clinical laboratory oversight mechanisms to forensic laboratories. This structure may become a model for other states as they begin looking into creating independent oversight for their crime labs.
Georgia’s House Resolution 352 creates a legislative committee charged with studying and identifying best practices for eyewitness identification procedures, as well as evidentiary standards for admissibility of eyewitness identifications. The committee will submit a report of its findings to the legislature before the 2008 legislative session begins.
More states provide greater compensation for exonerated people
Texas amended its existing compensation law, easing access to compensation and increasing the amount provided (from $25,000 a year to $50,000 a year; $100,000 a year for people on death row).
Connecticut, Georgia, and Louisiana passed legislation providing compensation to specific exonerees in each state, including
, respectively. Florida continues to debate whether to provide compensation for
during its special legislative session this summer.
The nation’s two biggest states continue looking at critical reforms
New York’s Assembly Bill 8693 proposed a number of important reforms. The bill requires the establishment of statewide rules for proper preservation and retention of evidence. It also allows for the comparison of unidentified crime scene DNA and fingerprints with database systems, creates an independent Innocence Commission and requires recording of interrogations (which reduces false confessions). Though the bill did not ultimately pass, there remains significant legislative interest in these issues and the Innocence Project will continue to press for these reforms.
The California Legislature remains in session and continues to debate bills that would address some of the leading causes of wrongful convictions. Three bills, which are expected to pass soon and go to the Governor, would require recording of interrogations, improve guidelines for eyewitness identification procedures and require that testimony from jailhouse informants be corroborated. While similar bills were vetoed last year by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, the bills under consideration this year address the concerns he raised. A fourth bill establishing a forensic science study task force that would conduct a review of California's crime laboratory system is currently in the Senate for consideration.
The work ahead: Momentum fuels reforms in the months and years to come
The substantial progress we made during 2007 state legislative sessions shows what’s possible in states around the country – and shows how much work remains to be done.
Largely because of DNA exonerations and the lessons they provide, hundreds of jurisdictions now record interrogations, conduct more accurate identification procedures and take other concrete steps that are proven to prevent wrongful convictions.
But too many states don’t have these policies in place. And too many states don’t have laws requiring that evidence be preserved, stored and organized properly; most states still don’t have laws compensating exonerees; several states don’t explicitly grant access to DNA testing after a conviction (and many of the laws that are on the books are inadequate).