Op-Ed: Nebraska Desperately Needs Sensible Criminal Justice Legislation
Former U.S. Attorney for Nebraska Tom Monaghan and Executive Director of the Nebraska Innocence Project Tracy Hightower-Henne are calling for reform of state laws that are preventing potentially wrongfully convicted people from receiving new trials and restricting fair access to post-conviction DNA testing of evidence. In an op-ed piece published on Tuesday in the “Midlands Voices” section of the
, Monaghan and Hightower-Henne write:
Under current state law, a Nebraskan has only three years — beginning on the date of conviction — to request a new trial based on newly discovered, non-DNA evidence. Even if there is no possible way that the evidence could have been found within that time frame, the law says that you are not even entitled to have a judge hear whether or not you should get a new trial.
This is one of the most restrictive laws in the country — 46 other states provide some avenue for an individual to get back into court if new non-DNA evidence emerges — with no time limit on introducing the new evidence that could potentially prove innocence.
This arbitrary time bar is particularly troubling because recent scientific developments have raised doubts about the validity of some types of forensic evidence used to secure convictions, and this new information is considered “newly discovered evidence.”
While the three-year time limit applies only to non-DNA evidence, wrongfully convicted Nebraskans also face barriers to proving their innocence with DNA testing. Under the current law, in order to be granted DNA testing a defendant must prove that DNA technology did not exist at the original trial, or that a more advanced technology has since emerged.
There are many reasons why testing may not have been done at a trial despite the existence of the technology. State laboratories with limited resources may not test evidence at a crime scene that doesn’t seem probative at the time, or a defendant threatened with a harsh sentence may plead guilty out of fear.
Sen. Patty Pansing-Brooks has introduced sensible legislation, which the Judiciary Committee will hear this week, that would help more wrongfully convicted Nebraskans and better enable the detection of the true perpetrators of these crimes. The measures would remove both the arbitrary three-year limit to request a new trial if new non-DNA evidence emerges and the requirement that a defendant prove that DNA technology did not exist at his or her original trial to qualify for testing.
Sometimes the system gets it wrong, and Nebraska should ensure that when this happens, innocent people, victims and our communities get the justice they deserve.
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