News 12.19.16

Justice Highlights in 2016

By Innocence Staff

As 2016 comes to an end, the Innocence Blog asked the people who lead programming at the Innocence Project to share their justice highlights from the past year. Over the next two weeks, you can read the Innocence Blog to get their insiders’ perspectives on the meaningful strides the Innocence Project made in 2016 toward protecting innocent people in the justice system. With the help of generous supporters like you, the Innocence Project reached new heights!

Rebecca Brown, Director of Policy

In 2016, the Innocence Project celebrated a number of hard-fought victories, including the following:

  1. Three men—Nelson Ortiz, Jose Caro and Nelson Ruiz—were excluded as assailants in Puerto Rico under a new post-conviction DNA testing law there. The three men were serving life sentences after they were wrongly convicted of a 1988 murder. Based on the new law, which was enacted last year and was strongly supported by Justicia Reivindicada (Puerto Rico Innocence Project) and the Innocence Project—Ortiz , Caro and Ruiz were released on bail in August. They ruling in their case was historic. Ortiz, Caro and Ruiz are the first people in Puerto Rico to have ever had convictions overturned subsequent to DNA testing.
  2. The Innocence Project Policy Department, in collaboration with its local Innocence Network partners, enabled a total of 12 statewide innocence-related reforms this year: six laws and policies reforming police practice in the area of eyewitness identification; five laws and policies either mandating or creating advisory policies to record custodial interrogations statewide; and a compensation law in Hawaii.
  3. The Innocence Project successfully lobbied the reauthorization of the Justice for All Act. The ultimate holiday gift came when Congress passed the Justice for All Reauthorization Act, which is on its way to the president’s desk for signature. This bill has been over six years in the making. Its long-time champion has been Senator Patrick Leahy. Original cosponsors of the bill included Senator John Cornyn (R-TX) and Representatives Ted Poe (R-TX) and Jim Costa (D-CA).

In terms of specific wins for innocence issues, the law:

  • Expands access to post-conviction DNA testing in federal cases;
  • Reauthorizes the Coverdell crime lab program that funds state and local crime labs and requires lab oversight protections; and
  • Reauthorizes the Bloodsworth Post-Conviction DNA Testing Program at $10 million per year (double the most recent authorization level of $5 million per year). It’s important to note that we still will have to fight for Bloodsworth Program funding each year during the annual appropriations process, but this increased reauthorization level shows Congress’ support for the program.

For 2017 . . .

For too many years, significant advances in passing laws to compensate the wrongfully convicted have been slow to come. For years, we were stymied by the recession and its negative impact on state budgets but these laws have still been slow to pass because they carry fiscal consequences for the government. It is my deepest hope that policymakers will push past the inertia that greets many of these proposals and ensure that our clients, who have already been forced to live through the unique horror of wrongful conviction, get the monetary compensation and social services that they so deeply deserve.

Related: Senate Committee Hears from Oklahomans Impacted by Eyewitness Misidentification

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