Today, two historic events are occurring – President Barack Obama is giving his last State of the Union speech, and for the first time ever, two exonerees (Michael Morton, of Texas, and James Tillman, of Connecticut) will be in the audience.
At a time when President Obama and members of Congress in both parties have expressed commitment to reforming our nation’s broken criminal justice system, we, the undersigned urge the President and Congress make preventing wrongful convictions a priority by taking the following actions:
- The Administration should continue to lead on forensic science reform by establishing and implementing a comprehensive federal strategy to create a forensic science research agenda, a process for evaluating foundational validation of forensic science techniques and scientifically-sound forensic science standards.
- The Attorney General’s Inter-Agency Reentry Council should review and recommend specifics steps to improve support for exoneree reentry, and Congress should pass the Second Chance Reauthorization Act, which would make exonerees explicitly eligible for certain federally supported reentry services.
- Congress should robustly fund innocence and forensic science programs, which help to both reveal and prevent wrongful convictions, and reauthorize such programs by passing Justice for All Act reauthorization.
Morton and Tillman were invited to the State of the Union by Reps. Sam Johnson (R-TX) and John Larson (D-CT), both of whom sponsored the recently enacted Wrongful Conviction Tax Relief Act of 2015. This historic, bipartisan legislation was also championed by Sens. John Cornyn (R-TX) and Chuck Schumer (D-NY), and ends the federal government’s taxation of compensation received for wrongful conviction while also helping to shine a light on the hardships faced by the innocent upon release.
Morton and Tillman both suffered the loss of their families, reputations, and liberty on account of their wrongful convictions. When the criminal justice system is broken, no one wins – not the accused, not victims, not families, not courts, not law enforcement and not the community. Every one’s right to life, liberty and pursuit of happiness is at risk when access to justice is denied. Making our criminal justice system transparent, fair, accurate, reliable and accountable is of paramount importance. While the Wrongful Convictions Tax Relief Act of 2015 was an important first step, our nation must do more to address wrongful convictions and the needs of those who have been unjustly punished.
We urge the Administration and Congress to act on the abovementioned policies in order to restore justice.