News 05.03.07

Sweeping State Legislative Reform Package To Address Wrongful Convictions Introduced in New York


New York has seen more DNA exonerations than 47 other states; key reforms will address and prevent wrongful convictions

(NEW YORK, NY; May 3, 2007) – In an unprecedented legislative effort that makes addressing and preventing wrongful convictions in New York State a top priority, leaders in the state legislature today joined the Innocence Project and New Yorkers who have been exonerated through DNA evidence to unveil a broad package of reforms to enhance the state’s criminal justice system.

The sweeping legislative package includes fundamental reforms – including access to post-conviction DNA testing, preservation of evidence that can prove innocence, mechanisms for people to prove their innocence by using forensic databases that can identify true perpetrators of crimes, the formation of a state Innocence Commission and others. Three of the bills were filed today in Albany, joining three others that are bolstered by growing support as part of the comprehensive reform package.

"There have been 23 DNA exonerations in New York State – including nine in just the last 16 months. Few states have had so many exonerations, and none have had so many in such a short span of time. This reform package, which is bold and ambitious and well-reasoned, will use the lessons of these exonerations to fundamentally improve the state’s criminal justice system," said Barry Scheck, Co-Director of the Innocence Project, which is affiliated with Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University.

The package of reforms was announced today in front of the NYPD Pearson Place Warehouse in Queens. Evidence from criminal cases throughout New York City is housed at the sprawling Pearson Place facility; according to the Innocence Project, Pearson Place has among the worst storage and retrieval systems in the nation, and evidence is routinely missing or unavailable for DNA testing after it enters the facility. Alan Newton, who was exonerated through DNA testing last year after serving 21 years in prison for a rape in the Bronx that he did not commit, spoke at today’s press conference – explaining that he could have proven his innocence and been released from prison 12 years earlier if state regulations had been in place requiring better systems at Pearson Place and facilities like it.

"Pearson Place is a metaphor for what’s wrong with the state’s criminal justice system – it relies on systems that are outdated by decades and don’t use the state’s resources to the best potential, and it lacks transparency and a sense of urgency about getting to the truth in these cases. This reform package is a major step toward cleaning up both Pearson Place and the state’s criminal justice system," Scheck said. "If these reforms had been in place, many of the people we have exonerated in New York would not have been wrongfully convicted or would have been able to prove their innocence much sooner."


The reform package announced today includes:

 

  • Evidence Preservation, A8046

This legislation will allow New York State to tap the potential of preserved evidence by empowering the New York State Forensic Science Commission to create rules regarding the proper retention, storage and organization of biological evidence.

Twenty-one states have laws requiring the preservation of evidence.

  • Post-Conviction DNA Testing, A8047

Some New York judges have interpreted state law to deny DNA testing in cases where people pled guilty, and this minor fix to the law will clarify that if there is DNA evidence that can prove innocence post-conviction, it should be tested regardless of how that conviction came about.

Less than half of the 40 states that provide statutory access to post-conviction DNA testing explicitly deny testing to those who pled guilty, and the trend is for state legislatures to enable such parties to pursue DNA testing

  • Use of Forensic Databases to Prove Innocence, A8048

This legislation would clarify that a judge can order the comparison of crime scene evidence to appropriate databases (of convicted offender DNA profiles or fingerprints), and thus help not only protect the innocent, but identify the truly guilty.

Georgia, Illinois, and North Carolina have enacted statutes to clarify that judges have this power.

  • Innocence Commission, A4317

This bill would create an independent commission, comprised of key players from all branches of government and all corners of the criminal justice system, to learn the lessons of wrongful convictions and identify the remedies that can prevent them.

The states of California, Illinois, North Carolina, Connecticut, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania have all created statewide Innocence Commissions, and many more are actively considering them.

  • Compensation, A7549 and A1251

Two pieces of legislation would speed up the process of compensating the wrongfully convicted (A7549), and eliminate the technicality that otherwise prevents certain classes of legally and factually innocent people from being compensated for their wrongful convictions (A1251).

21 states provide statutory access to compensation for people who were wrongfully convicted.



Statements from Leading New York State Legislators on the Reform Package

"The only person who benefits from someone innocent in prison, is the person who actually committed the crime. By not doing everything we can to protect the innocent we are not only doing a disservice to them, but also to ourselves and most importantly to the victims. I want to thank the Innocence Project for working so hard to protect New Yorkers and for working with me on this legislation. With it, we can start to use DNA to protect the innocent as well as convict the guilty,” said Assembly Codes Committee Chairman Joseph Lentol, who is the sponsor of the bills involving evidence preservation, DNA testing for people who pled guilty to crimes and forensic database searches to identify true perpetrators.

“I applaud the work of the Innocence Project in their fight to exonerate the innocent and to stop wrongful convictions before they happen,” said Senator Eric Schneiderman, Ranking Member of the Senate Codes Committee. “Before we end this year’s legislative session, we must make sure our state takes every step possible to prevent these horrific violations of fundamental human justice.”

"Justice denied or justice delayed is a definitive sign of a system in need of reform. I am sincerely thankful that the State of New York does not currently use the death penalty, as the consequences of current policy could be much worse. In my opinion, every individual without access to a full range of resources enabling possible exoneration is an individual lacking sufficient civil rights and this legislation will hopefully be steps in the right direction," said Assemblyman Keith L.T. Wright, Chairman of the Assembly Social Services Committee, Member of the Assembly Corrections Committee and Member of the Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic and Asian Caucus.

Assemblyman Sam Hoyt of Buffalo, who is the sponsor of one of the compensation bills, said: “I am proud to be working with my colleagues and the Innocence Project to help address potential shortfalls in our justice system as technology has evolved more quickly than our laws. The importance of these bills can be seen by looking at virtually any of the cases of individuals who were wrongfully convicted and later exonerated. Anthony Capozzi, for one, would still be behind bars were it not for the recent location of DNA evidence that had been stored away and forgotten about. Preserving such evidence and ensuring that it is accessible for testing and comparison is a crucial change that is desperately needed in our justice system.”

Assemblyman Michael Gianaris, who is the sponsor of the bill to create an Innocence Commission, said: “One innocent person spending years in prison for crimes he or she did not commit is one too many, and recent history proves the problem in New York is more widespread than anyone would like to admit. This package of necessary reforms including my legislation creating a state-wide Innocence Commission is the systemic approach we need to keep this from happening again.”

200 people nationwide have been exonerated through DNA evidence, including 23 in New York, according to the Innocence Project, which is affiliated with Cardozo School of Law. Only Texas (with 28 exonerations) and Illinois (with 27) have seen more DNA exonerations than New York State.



More Background on New York State Reform Bills

  • Evidence Preservation, A8046; sponsored by Assemblyman Lentol

Because of DNA technology, properly retained and catalogued biological evidence can be critical to proving the innocence of a wrongfully convicted person, and even more often, can enable law enforcement agencies to solve old or “cold” cases by connecting it to individuals convicted of past crimes – including those committed in different jurisdictions. This legislation will allow New York State to tap the potential of preserved evidence by empowering the New York State Forensic Science Commission to create rules regarding the proper retention, storage and organization of biological evidence. Twenty-one states statutorily require the preservation of evidence.

Read more

on laws regulating evidence preservation and storage.

 

  • Post-Conviction DNA Testing, A8047; sponsored by Assemblyman Lentol

New York State led the nation by creating one of the first post-conviction DNA testing laws; now it must improve that law in light of the lessons learned from the nation’s 200 DNA exonerations. Nine of these 200 innocent people had actually pled guilty to crimes they didn’t commit, but were able to prove their innocence through post-conviction DNA testing. New York judges have interpreted the state’s law to deny testing to potentially innocent people. This bill will fix that law to clarify that if there is DNA evidence that can prove the innocence of a convicted person, it should be tested regardless of how that conviction came about.

Less than half of the 40 states that provide statutory access to post-conviction DNA testing explicitly deny testing to those who pled guilty, and the trend is for state legislatures to enable such parties to pursue DNA testing.

Read more

on why innocent people sometimes confess or plead guilty to crimes they did not commit.

 

  • Use of Forensic Databases to Prove Innocence, A8048; sponsored by Assemblyman Lentol

In some cases (such as those of New York State DNA exonerees

Jeffrey Deskovic

and

Douglas Warney

), there was DNA or fingerprint evidence at the crime scene that did not match the suspect. If run through the appropriate DNA or Fingerprint databases, that evidence could indicate that someone else, previously convicted of a serious offense, was at the crime scene and may have been the real perpetrator of the crime. The problem is that judges in New York State do not have clear authority to order that the crime scene evidence be compared to those databases; only the prosecutor has clear power to do that. This legislation would clarify that a judge can order the comparison of such evidence to appropriate databases, and thus help not only protect the innocent, but identify the truly guilty. Georgia, Illinois, and North Carolina have enacted statutes to clarify that judges have this power.

  • Innocence Commission, A4317; sponsored by Assemblyman Gianaris

DNA exonerations are tragedies that provide important lessons. By studying New York State wrongful convictions, we can identify their causes and develop remedies that can prevent them, while simultaneously improving the accuracy of criminal investigations and prosecutions. This bill will create an independent commission, comprised of key players from all branches of government and all corners of the criminal justice system, to improve the accuracy of the criminal justice system.

Six states – California, Illinois, North Carolina, Connecticut, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania – have created statewide Innocence Commissions, and many more are actively considering them.

Read more background

on the six existing state Innocence Commissions.

 

  • Compensation, A7549 and A1251; sponsored by Assemblymen Hoyt and Gantt (respectively)

The first bill (A7549) would speed up the process of compensating the wrongfully convicted, moving such claims to the top of the Court of Claims agenda. The second bill (A1251) would eliminate the technicality that otherwise prevents certain classes of legally and factually innocent people from being compensated for their wrongful convictions. It would allow for claims of wrongful conviction by people who are exonerated through sections not currently enumerated in the claims statute.

Twenty-one states provide statutory access to compensation for wrongful conviction.

Read more

on compensation laws nationwide.

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