Last week, the Maryland legislature voted unanimously to pass Senate Bill 423, which would allow individuals who were convicted by way of a guilty plea, Alford plea or plea of nolo contendere (no contest) to file a writ of actual innocence or petition to test newly discovered DNA evidence.
The bill was proposed after two Maryland Court of Appeals decisions—Yonga v. State (2015) and Jamison v. State (2016)—determined that individuals who accepted guilty pleas were no longer eligible to petition for a writ of actual innocence or for the testing of newly discovered DNA evidence.
Supporters of the bill, which was sponsored by Democratic State Senator Bobby Zirkin, reasoned that innocent people often plead guilty to crimes they do not commit.
“The bottom line is, if you’re innocent, you should not be in prison,” Zirkin told Capital News Service. “There are times when individuals plea to things that they may not have done because it’s the better idea in terms of… if you’re looking at a ton of time and there’s a plea for less.”
Other supporters of the bill, such as Amshula Jayaram, state policy advocate at the Innocence Project, and Michele Nethercott, director of the University of Baltimore Innocence Project Clinic, told lawmakers that this bill would allow defendants to petition the court of their case to be retried.
Under the proposed law, courts will be able to grant a writ of actual innocence when appropriate or grant DNA testing by determining whether “a reasonable probability exists that DNA testing has the scientific potential to produce exculpatory or mitigating evidence relevant to a claim of wrongful conviction or sentencing,” the bill reads. The court may then either grant a new trial or vacate the conviction if the defendant’s innocence is clearly established.
According to the National Registry of Exonerations, 360 U.S. exonerees pleaded guilty to crimes they did not commit.