May 23, 2022
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SUPPORT GROWS FOR PASSAGE OF THE CHALLENGING WRONGFUL CONVICTIONS ACT DURING FINAL WEEKS OF SESSION
Bill Moved Through the Final Assembly Committee Monday and Now Heads to the Floor for a Full Vote
ALBANY, N.Y. – The Challenging Wrongful Convictions Act passed the Assembly’s Rules Committee on Monday, paving the way for this significant criminal justice reform to head to the floor for a full vote. A.98/S.266 passed Rules with unanimous support from the Majority members.
The bill would reform CPL 440.10 to give people who were wrongfully convicted a legitimate chance to get back into court to clear their name based on new evidence not available to them at trial. It now awaits action by legislative leaders to bring the bill to the floor in both houses for a full vote.
With legislative co-sponsors from Western-NY to Long Island, broad support among voters and the go-ahead from a key assembly committee, advocates are optimistic that the Challenging Wrongful Convictions Act can be passed this year. Formerly incarcerated organizers and activists, including people exonerated from wrongful convictions and those that are still fighting to clear their names, praised the progress the Assembly is making to move the bill forward at this critical moment.
Activists are optimistic about the bill’s passage, even in a challenging climate for criminal justice reforms. The bill has numerous legislative co-sponsors from across the state, recently adding Senator Kevin Thomas of Long Island to the list of supporters, and new polling has shown broad support from voters: Democrats and Republicans alike. 87 percent of likely Democratic voters and 63% of likely Republican voters support the measure.
“Many New Yorkers, both inside prison and on the outside, as well as their families, are still suffering from being denied opportunities to vacate wrongful convictions because of our archaic laws. We need this important reform and are calling on legislative leaders Carl Heastie and Andrea Stewart-Cousins to bring the bill for a full vote in both houses as soon as possible,” said VOCAL-NY leader Eileen Maher.
“The profound harm of a wrongful conviction can never be undone but at the very least, the state has a responsibility to ensure a working pathway to exoneration exists,” said Assemblymember Dan Quart. “New Yorkers overwhelmingly support action to address the crisis of wrongful convictions. There is no time to lose – we must bring the Challenging Wrongful Convictions Act to the floor for a vote before this legislative session ends.”
“Wrongful convictions are an affront to justice, and harm the cause of public safety. Our laws must make it easier for the innocent to challenge their convictions in court, and I’m proud to sponsor this legislation,” said Senator Zellnor Myrie.
“Polling confirms what we already know: that wrongful convictions are the greatest stain on our criminal legal system. Democratic and Republican voters alike believe we must take immediate steps to address this crisis. In New York State, Criminal Procedure Law 440 is the only mechanism for exoneration. But the law as written is wildly out of step with the rest of the country and is impossible for people to successfully navigate without the assistance of an attorney. We are grateful to the Assembly Rules Committee for passing this crucial piece of legislation out of committee. We call on both the Senate and the Assembly to pass the bill in its entirety this session. New York can only begin to address the past harms of mass incarceration by taking these long overdue steps,” said Sergio De La Pava, Legal Director, New York County Defender Services.
“New York, which has one of the highest rates of wrongful convictions, has one of the most restrictive post-conviction legal frameworks in the nation. Despite the fact that one in five of the 3000 people exonerated in the US pled guilty to crimes they did not commit, New York prevents people who plead guilty but do not have the benefit of DNA evidence in their cases from presenting their claims in court. In addition to being out of step with the nation, this framework causes deep harm to the innocent, their loved ones and their communities. Albany must act now. Justice demands it,” said Rebecca Brown, Policy Director, Innocence Project.
“The passage of the Challenging Wrongful Convictions Act through the Rules Committee is an enormous step forward in guaranteeing wrongfully convicted New Yorker’s their day in court and a meaningful chance to prove their innocence,” said Claudia S. Trupp, Director of the Justice First Project at the Center for Appellate Litigation.
“Today’s vote is an important step toward helping immigrant New Yorkers break the cycle of perpetual punishment. Community members with wrongful convictions must have real pathways to seek justice. We are long overdue for reform that allows immigrants to vindicate their rights and we call on the legislature to pass it this session,” said Jane Shim, Senior Policy Attorney at the Immigrant Defense Project.
Momentum is building to pass the bill during the final weeks of the legislative session, buoyed by new polling released by the groups earlier this month that shows the bill has broad bipartisan support among voters.
Currently most people are legally barred from relief even if they have evidence of their actual innocence and those that can petition are often rejected on technical grounds, rather than on the merits. A 2018 Court of Appeals case, People v. Tiger, ruled that people who plead guilty cannot make a claim that they were wrongfully convicted based on new evidence, unless that evidence is DNA. But DNA cases make up a small minority of criminal cases and 95% of all convictions in New York are the result of a guilty plea.
The bill, sponsored by Senator Zellnor Myrie and Assemblyman Dan Quart and backed by numerous organizations including New York County Defender Services, the Innocence Project and VOCAL-NY, would remove this “guilty-plea bar” and also would provide applicants with a right to counsel, a right to discovery, a right to a hearing and a right to appeal, none of which currently exist in the realm of post-conviction litigation in New York State.
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 red states like Texas and Alabama.