New York Governor Kathy Hochul vetoed a bill days before Christmas that would have made it easier for people who have pleaded guilty to crimes to challenge their convictions, a measure favored by criminal justice reformers but fiercely opposed by prosecutors.
The Democrat said “drastically expanding eligibility for post-conviction relief” would “upend the justice system and create an unjustifiable risk of flooding the courts with frivolous claims,” in a veto letter released Saturday.
Under current state law, defendants who plead guilty are generally barred from attempting to have their cases reopened based on a new assertion of their innocence, except in certain circumstances involving new evidence DNA.
The bill passed by Parliament in June would have expanded the types of evidence that could be considered evidence of innocence, including video footage or evidence showing another person confessed to a crime. Arguments that a person was forced to plead falsely guilty would also have been taken into account.
Prosecutors and advocates for crime victims warned that the bill would have opened the door to drawn-out and frivolous legal challenges by perpetrators.
Erie County District Attorney John Flynn, president of the New York State Prosecutors Association, wrote in a letter to Hochul in July that the bill would create “an impossible burden on a system of criminal justice system already overloaded.
The legislation would have benefited people like Reginald Cameron, who was exonerated in 2023, years after pleading guilty to first-degree robbery in exchange for a lesser sentence. He served more than eight years in prison after being arrested alongside another person in 1994 in the fatal shooting of Kei Sunada, a 22-year-old Japanese immigrant. Cameron, then 19, confessed after being questioned for several hours without a lawyer.
His conviction was overturned after prosecutors reexamined the case, finding inconsistencies between the facts of the crime and the confession that formed the basis of the conviction. The investigation also revealed that the detective who obtained Cameron’s confession was also linked to other high-profile cases that resulted in exonerations, including the Central Park Five case.
Various states, including Texas, have implemented several measures over the years intended to stop wrongful convictions. Texas changed a law in 2015 that allows a convicted person to request a DNA test after their conviction. In 2017, another amended rule required law enforcement to electronically record the entirety of interrogations of suspects in serious criminal cases.
“We’re pretty out of whack when it comes to our post-conviction status,” Amanda Wallwin, a state policy advocate at the Innocence Project, said of New York.
“We claim to be a state concerned with racial justice, concerned with justice. Allowing Texas to outsmart us is and should be embarrassing,” she said.
In 2018, New York’s highest court affirmed that people who plead guilty cannot challenge their convictions unless they have DNA evidence to support their innocence. This requirement makes it very difficult for defendants to get their case heard before a judge, even if they have strong evidence that is not based on DNA.
Over the past three decades, the proportion of criminal cases proceeding to trial in New York has steadily declined, according to a report from the New York State Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. Approximately 99% of misdemeanor charges and 94% of felony charges in the state are resolved by a guilty plea.
“In my job, I know there are many circumstances in which people plead guilty to crimes because they were advised or misadvised by their current attorneys,” said Donna Aldea, an attorney at the law firm Barket Epstein Kearon Aldea & LoTurco. . “Sometimes they are afraid that if they go to court, they will face much worse consequences, even if they did not commit the crime.”
She said the state’s criminal justice system is currently designed in such a way that it is impossible for people to challenge their guilty pleas years later when new evidence emerges or when they are in a better financial situation to challenge their conviction.
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