New York, NY – Since 1989, 303 New Yorkers have been exonerated of a crime, amounting to a collective 3,068 years lost to wrongful conviction. Now, advocates and lawmakers are saying the true number of wrongful convictions is higher than reported because the law prevents large groups of people from ever seeking relief in state court.
“We have learned from years of working to free the innocent that a conviction, once secured, is extremely difficult to overturn,” said Rebecca Brown, Director of Policy for the Innocence Project. “This is especially true of people who plead guilty to crimes they did not commit.”
The problem lies with the rules governing wrongful convictions, Criminal Procedure Law 440, and a 2018 New York Court of Appeals case. Of the thousands of 440 motions to vacate judgement filed each year, only a handful are granted.
“Our legal system now has a moral obligation to not only reform itself going forward but also to closely scrutinize its past for toxic errors, said Sergio De La Pava, Legal Director of New York County Defender Services. “Article 440 of the criminal procedure law is the primary mechanism for doing so but, as currently written, it is a woefully inadequate one.”
In 2018, the New York Court of Appeals further complicated the process. In People v. Tiger, the court ruled that a person who pleads guilty can only be exonerated through DNA evidence – even if police or prosecutorial misconduct occurred or actual innocence can be demonstrated. This is a problem because the vast majority of convictions are the result of plea bargains, not trials, DNA evidence may not exist in all cases, and prosecutors coerce guilty pleas by imposing what’s known as the trial tax.
The Challenging Wrongful Convictions Act, sponsored by Assemblymember Dan Quart and Senator Zellnor Myrie would overhaul the rules governing wrongful convictions. If enacted, the bill would guarantee that everyone with a claim of innocence has access to discovery, an attorney, and a working pathway to exoneration. Furthermore, the law would ensure that people convicted for offenses that are later decriminalized have a mechanism to clear their records. It has the backing of VOCAL-NY, the New York County Defenders Service, the Immigrant Defense Project, the Innocence Project, civil rights attorney Tom Hoffman, Exoneree Derrick Hamilton, and more.
“We know wrongful convictions happen in New York. We know they happen a lot – so much so that New York has the third highest number of wrongful convictions of any state in the country,” said Assemblymember Dan Quart. “The harm of a wrongful conviction is so profound that if there is any doubt in the integrity of a conviction, the state has a responsibility to make sure a working mechanism for review and relief exists.”