Helping Innocent People Who Are Wrongly Imprisoned
Last week, two men who had been sentenced to death 30 years ago were proven innocent by DNA testing. Henry Lee McCollum and Leon Brown were teenagers when they were wrongly accused of the brutal rape and murder of a child in North Carolina. One of the most shocking parts of the story is that prosecutors hid evidence that linked a convicted rapist to the murder, a man who went on to kill another child while McCollum and Brown were wrongly imprisoned.
The case is a stark reminder of the dual harms of wrongful conviction: when the innocent are imprisoned, the guilty go free.
According to the National Registry of Exonerations, 22 percent of the 1,427 wrongful convictions that have resulted in exoneration were due to false or misleading forensic evidence and 46 percent were due to official misconduct. Unaccounted for is the stark reality that wrongful convictions rarely result in exonerations.
While no single law can remedy this profound injustice, there are three bills before Gov. Jerry Brown right now that will make significant advances in California towards a system that accounts for mistakes and allows for an evolution: a day where no man or woman suffers from a preventable wrongful conviction.
These bills are:
- SB 980 (Lieu) will make post-conviction DNA testing more efficient, more effective, and more consistently applied across California.
- AB 885 (Ammiano) will permit a court to give a special instruction to the jury in cases where the prosecutor intentionally or knowingly fails to disclose evidence that the defendant may be innocent.
- SB 1058 (Leno) will assure that people who are wrongfully convicted because of expert testimony can have their convictions reversed when that expert later admits he or she was wrong, or is proven wrong by new research.
Supported by the ACLU of California, the two Innocence Projects in California, and California Attorneys for Criminal Justice, all three bills were introduced to respond to the fact that haphazard and dishonest applications of evidence – even intentional withholding of evidence – victimizes the innocent and fails to bring true perpetrators to justice.
Strong bi-partisan leadership sent these bills to the governor. All three bills garnered vocal support from both parties, notably from Republican Senator Joel Anderson (R-Temecula) who, on the floor of the California Senate this August, said about SB 1058 that, “It is egregious to allow a guilty man to walk free, but it is even more egregious to put an innocent man in jail.”
A few days later he added: “Let’s not hide behind laws that incarcerate innocent folks,” as AB 885 came up for a vote.
Anderson spoke right to the fact that absent a change in the law, California could potentially incarcerate more innocent individuals and continue practices that make it practically impossible for those individuals to prove their innocence.
Join us in urging Gov. Brown to sign SB 1058, SB 980 and AB 885, to make wrongful convictions a relic of our criminal justice system!
Katherine Williams is a Legislative Advocate with the ACLU of California's Sacramento Legislative Office.