New York May Liberalize Challenging Wrongful Convictions
The newly passed bill, which the governor has not yet signed, if signed into law, will make it easier for more people who pleaded guilty to a crime to petition a court to reconsider their conviction, which is a significant change from the current law. According to court precedent, if a defendant pleads guilty in New York, they can only challenge their conviction if new DNA-related evidence is uncovered. The new legislation would expand this to other types of evidence. While poeple who have been convicted after trial, can challenge their convictions under New York Criminal Procedural Law 440, based upon newly discovered evidence, which if available at the time of trial would have a likelihood of a different result, the grounds for those who have pled guilty are much less limited.
This new law opens up a long standing debate surrounding plea bargains and those who plead guilty. Most Republicans, prosecutors and those in the law enforcement camp, take the tunnel vision view that if someone has pled guilty that means they must be guilty and the plea bargain usually includes a waiver of the right to appeal and challenge the conviction. Those who have faced criminal charges, and New York's criminal defense lawyers know that all too often, the deck is stacked against a criminal defendant who has to make a Hobbeson choice of pleading guilty to something they didn't do or facing a trial with often times corrupt evidence being used against them, including prejudicial line ups which case false identifications, officers attributing guilty statements to people that they didn't make, witnesses testifying against them to keep themselves out of jail, confessions obtained by threats of the office or miselading people to confess or wrongly implicate others in exchange for a break, suppressed favorable evidence, among other inequities.
The bill also takes several other steps to help ease the process of post-conviction challenges. For instance, it will set up a commission on prosecutorial conduct to evaluate complaints against prosecutors, who are often accused of misconduct. This commission will help ensure that prosecutors adhere to ethical and legal standards while prosecuting criminal cases.
Furthermore, the bill will establish an Ombudsman for Wrongful Convictions to help those who have been falsely accused and convicted to navigate the criminal justice system. The Ombudsman will be tasked with identifying individuals who may have been wrongfully convicted, helping them file their claims, and working with local authorities to investigate these matters in a fair and impartial manner. High profile cases like the Central Park Five, have drawn attention to improper police practices that result in tainted evidence, such as threatening arrestees, often young people with decades of jail unless they implicate someone else, telling people it will help their case if they say things that will implicate them. These types of tactics often create a situation where an innocent person knows that if they go to trial they will be convicted of a crime that they didn't commit, but they are offered substantially less jail time if they plead guilty, even though they are innocent.
Statistics show that wrongful convictions and police misconduct are significant problems in the United States. According to the National Registry of Exonerations, over 2,800 people have been exonerated since 1989, with an average of 128 exonerations per year in the last decade. Of these cases, some 54% involved official misconduct, such as police, prosecutor, or judicial misconduct, and many included more than one kind of error or misconduct. Another study released by the National Academy of Sciences found that at least 4% of people on death row in the United States are likely innocent. This figure does not include those sentenced to life in prison or other serious offenses, which can also result in wrongful convictions. Furthermore, police misconduct is a widespread and deeply ingrained problem in many police departments. In 2010, the National Police Misconduct Reporting Project (NPMRP) estimated that over 23,000 cases of police misconduct were reported in the United States annually.
The bill’s advocates and sponsors believe that it represents a major step forward in fixing the criminal legal system in New York. In a statement, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie said that “nothing is more fundamental to our criminal legal system than differentiating between guilt and innocence”, and that the new legislation will help make that distinction clearer. One of the most fundamental prinicples is that the process should be fair, and all too often it isn't and the criminal justice system should never close its eyes to the truth when a person has been convicted of a crime they didn't commit, especially when the system stacked the deck unfairly to make them believe that they had no choice but to plead guilty to a crime that they didn't commit. The opponents are prosecutors argue that everyone who pleads guilty will now challenge their convictions, which will create a dramatic increased work load on an already strained Court system, and that the main benefit to the system in offering a plea bargain is the finality of the process, and that by allowing pleas of guilty to be challenged, this will open the floodgates of never ending litigation. While the convenience of the system is not a basis for keeping innocent people in jail, significant resources will need to be expended to effectively handle these new challenges. But our New York wrongful conviction lawyers believe that if the system has enough resources to put someone in jail, especially with tainted or suppressed evidence, they should have the resources to hear their challenges because the right to petition the government is one of the most fundamental rights under our system of law.
This newly passed legislation will help level the playing field for the wrongfully convicted in New York. It provides them with a clearer path to challenging their convictions and clearing their name, and it sets up systems to help prevent future wrongful convictions. This is a significant step towards achieving a more just and equitable criminal justice system