New York state lawmakers mounted a renewed push on Tuesday for legislation that would deepen the well of resources for people challenging wrongful convictions, after the bill stalled in the Legislature last year.
The bill, sponsored by state Sen. Zellnor Myrie and Assemblymember Jeffrion Aubry, aims to eradicate existing barriers for people wrongfully convicted of crimes who are seeking to make the case for exoneration. State law only allows people to be exonerated by way of new DNA evidence if they have already entered guilty pleas — a difficult bar to attain for people seeking to prove their innocence.
Speaking from the state Capitol building on Tuesday, Myrie’s remarks were regularly interrupted by people who said they had been wrongfully convicted of crimes, as they attempted to share their experiences with the public. The consequences of a wrongful conviction, Myrie said — pointing to shouts from the crowd — are all too real.
“How many days are appropriate for you to be in that cell?” Myrie asked. “Six months? Five months? Ten years? Thirty-eight years? A day?”
“A day in prison for a crime you did not commit is a day too long,” he said. “And for too many New Yorkers, as we see today — this is not a hypothetical. This isn’t just a press conference. This is life.”
An earlier version of the bill passed the Assembly last June. It failed to gain traction in the Senate and did not make it to the chamber floor before the previous legislative session ended.
The bill would also create a post-conviction right to counsel and a right to the legal discovery process after conviction. Aubry, the bill’s Assembly sponsor, likened wrongful conviction to “a stain similar to slavery.”
The overwhelming majority of criminal convictions nationwide are built on guilty pleas. Scholars estimate that 90% to 95% of criminal cases in federal and state court are resolved through a plea deal, according to findings from the Department of Justice. One in four people nationally who are later exonerated had initially pleaded guilty.
“I was bullied into pleading guilty to something that I didn’t do and that conviction has had a negative impact on my life,” Eileen Maher, a community leader at VOCAL-NY, said in a statement. “It’s not right that now I have no recourse to vacate the conviction even if I can now prove that I didn’t do what I was accused of.”