April 18, 2023
Contact: Mitch Schwartz, (914) 330-1026
As Assembly Passes Wrongful Convictions Bill, Advocates and Exonerees Rally in Albany to Demand Action in Senate
Challenging Wrongful Convictions Act gives wrongfully-convicted New Yorkers the chance to prove their innocence
ALBANY–Exonerees, advocates, and elected officials, energized by the Assembly’s passage of the Challenging Wrongful Convictions Act (S.215 / A.278) late last month, gathered at the Capitol’s Million Dollar Staircase today to demand the Senate stand up for wrongfully-convicted New Yorkers. The Act, sponsored by Senator Zellnor Myrie and Assembly Member Jeffrion Aubry, improves New York’s post-conviction relief framework, one of the most restrictive in the nation for overturning wrongful convictions.
New York, which is a national outlier in barring people who pleaded guilty from vacating wrongful convictions, has the third highest number of wrongful convictions in the United States, according to the National Registry of Exonerations. This rule stems from a 2018 Court of Appeals case that barred people who are legally innocent, but who plead guilty under the threat of jail or prison time, from vacating their convictions without DNA evidence. Fewer than 10 percent of criminal cases produce such evidence.
The Hon. Rowan D. Wilson, the current nominee for Chief Justice for New York’s Court of Appeals, wrote the dissent in that 2018 case, emphasizing that “[e]very wrongful conviction is a stain on the reputation of the courts, eroding public trust and confidence in the legitimacy of our institutional status and the fairness and accuracy of our decisions.”
“Wrongful convictions are the shame of New York,” said Senator Zellnor Myrie. “They ruin lives, waste potential and squander limited resources prosecuting the innocent while true perpetrators remain at large. Unfortunately it’s far too easy to be wrongfully convicted in our state, and far too difficult to clear your name. If we’re serious about public safety, we must advance this legislation now.”
The Challenging Wrongful Convictions Act improves this process by:
- Removing the guilty plea bar on actual innocence claims when there is credible new, non-DNA evidence of wrongful conviction;
- Providing a right to post-conviction discovery; and
- Establishing a right to counsel for those with wrongful conviction claims. New York is one of just five states in the U.S. that does not provide a right to attorney in post-conviction cases, trailing states like Texas and Alabama.
“New York has a wrongful conviction problem, and it’s time to fix it,” said Amanda Wallwin, State Policy Advocate at the Innocence Project. “The Challenging Wrongful Convictions Act will restore one of the most fundamental rights to our criminal legal system – the right to prove your innocence. Every wrongful conviction has a devastating impact on the wrongfully convicted person, their family and their community. Each day that passes without this legislation is another day that wrongfully convicted people are left to languish in prison without a working pathway to demonstrate the truth of their innocence. It’s time for the Senate to finally pass the Challenging Wrongful Convictions Act.”
“Our elected officials need to walk and chew gum at the same time. They need to figure out this budget – with no rollbacks to bail reform – AND work to pass critical legislation like the Challenging Wrongful Convictions Act. This bill has already passed the Assembly, so we now need our Senators to step up and do the same,” said Neil Berry, a community leader at VOCAL-NY.
In New York and across the country, many innocent people plead guilty because they are coerced and face harsher penalties if they elect to go to trial. Nationally, 97 percent of criminal cases are resolved through guilty pleas and 1 in 4 wrongfully convicted Americans who were later exonerated pleaded guilty.
The bill, which has now passed the Assembly two years in a row, is featured on the Justice Roadmap and was included in the “People’s Budget” of the Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic & Asian Legislative Caucus.