Governor Signs Factual Innocence Law to Help Wrongfully Convicted in Wyoming
03.13.18 By Innocence Staff
New Law is Result of Collective Effort Among State Criminal Justice Groups
(March 13, 2018 – Cheyenne, WY) – Governor Matt Mead has signed the Post-Conviction Factual Innocence bill into law, taking a significant step forward in providing the wrongfully convicted with a way to prove their innocence. House Bill 26 was introduced by the Wyoming Joint Judiciary Committee and has been championed for several years by Representative Charles Pelkey (D-Laramie) and the Rocky Mountain Innocence Center, which is dedicated to overturning wrongful convictions in Wyoming, Utah and Nevada.
Under the existing law, while there is no time limit for a person to introduce new DNA evidence of innocence, there is a two-year deadline after conviction to present new non-DNA evidence. This new law removes the time limit and clarifies that new non-DNA evidence may include scientific advancements that discredit forensic evidence used in a conviction.
The legislation was developed by a working group that included the Rocky Mountain Innocence Center, the Office of the Attorney General, the Wyoming Prosecuting Attorneys Association, the Wyoming Trial Lawyers Association and the Office of the State Public Defender. The passage of this law represents a collaborative effort from all sides of the criminal justice system in Wyoming to ensure that the wrongfully convicted have a fair path to justice.
“This new law is a model for the entire country.” Feldman
“I am thrilled,” said Representative Charles Pelkey. “I carried similar measures as an individual legislator ever since I was elected. The key, though, this year was that it was taken as an interim topic by the Judiciary Committee. I am grateful to Chairman Kirkbride who suggested we form a working group to address the concerns of all parties. We got a bill that had the support of the executive branch, the prosecutors, trial attorneys and the Rocky Mountain Innocence Center. This year, it made it through without any serious opposition and it’s now signed into law.”
“I do want to say that this is also a fitting memorial to Diane Courselle, the University of Wyoming law professor in charge of the Defender Aid clinic. She’s the one that brought this issue to my attention and offered several early drafts of the bill. Diane passed away a couple of years ago and I am so pleased that we finally got it through in her honor.”
“Wyoming’s law made it nearly impossible to overturn wrongful convictions because DNA evidence is rare and it takes an average of 10 years to investigate innocence claims, track down evidence and put the pieces together,” said Aaron Lyttle, a board member of the Rocky Mountain Innocence Center and attorney in Cheyenne. “Over the years Representative Pelkey and other lawmakers have been committed to fixing the law, and with the help of the working group we now have an excellent solution for the wrongfully convicted to get justice.”
“This new law is a model for the entire country. It will help the innocent get justice and help law enforcement identify the person who actually committed the crime,” said Michelle Feldman, Legislative Strategist for the Innocence Project, which is affiliated with Cardozo School of Law.
“Improving the system and providing a pathway to freedom and justice for those who are innocent, benefits us all.” -Shanor
“The Wyoming County and Prosecuting Attorney’s Association is happy to hear of Governor Mead’s signing of this bill. This statute will provide an important check ensuring justice and integrity in Wyoming’s criminal justice system. We are proud of our Association’s involvement in the development of this legislation,” said Matt Redle of the Wyoming County and Prosecuting Attorney’s Association.
“For hundreds of years legal scholars, including Benjamin Franklin, have believed that letting two or ten or even 100 guilty people go free is preferable to convicting a single innocent person. The Wyoming Trial Lawyers Association applauds the years of effort and dedication Representative Charles Pelkey demonstrated in passing legislation that improves the legal process for those who have been wrongfully convicted. Improving the system and providing a pathway to freedom and justice for those who are innocent, benefits us all,” said Marcia Shanor Executive Director of the Wyoming Trial Lawyers Association.
The previous law required wrongfully convicted people to present new non-DNA evidence of innocence within two years of their conviction—even if it was impossible for the evidence to have been discovered within that time frame. While there is no deadline for introducing DNA evidence after conviction, DNA is unavailable in 90% of criminal cases making this new law a key component in proving innocence for the wrongly convicted.
In addition to removing the two-year time limit, the bill also clarifies that new evidence may include scientific advancements that undermine the forensic evidence used to convict someone. In recent years, major flaws have been revealed in the forensic analysis of arson, hair comparisons, bullet lead comparisons and other disciplines. This law will provide innocent people with a course to overturn convictions based on this type of flawed, unreliable evidence.
The new law is based on Utah’s factual innocence law, which became law in 2008 and resulted in two exonerations. Since then, only 13 petitions have been filed under the law in Utah, indicating that the impact on the court system has been minimal.