New York’s governor vetoes a bill that would make it easier for people to challenge their beliefs

By | December 24, 2023

ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) — New York Gov. Kathy Hochul days before Christmas vetoed a bill 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 the “sweeping expansion of the right to post-conviction relief would improve the justice system and create an irresponsible risk of flooding the courts with frivolous claims,” in a veto letter released Saturday.

Under existing state law, criminal defendants who plead guilty generally are not allowed to seek to have their cases reopened on a new claim of innocence, except in certain circumstances involving new DNA evidence.

The bill passed by the Legislature in June would have expanded the types of evidence that could be considered proof of innocence, including video footage or evidence of someone else confessing to a crime. Arguments that a person was coerced into making a false admission of guilt would also have been taken into account.

Prosecutors and crime victim advocates warned that the bill would have opened the floodgates to endless, frivolous legal challenges from the guilty.

Erie County District Attorney John Flynn, president of the District Attorney’s Association of the State of New York, wrote in a letter to Hochul in July that the bill would “place an impossible burden on an already overburdened criminal justice system.”

The legislation would have benefited people like Reginald Cameron, who was acquitted 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 he was arrested along with another person in the 1994 fatal shooting of Kei Sunada, a 22-year-old Japanese immigrant. Cameron, then 19, had confessed after being questioned for several hours without lawyers.

His conviction was thrown out after prosecutors re-examined the case and found inconsistencies between the facts of the crime and the confessions that formed the basis for the conviction. The investigation also found that the detective who obtained Cameron’s confessions was also connected to other high-profile cases that led to exonerations, including the Central Park Five case.

Several states, including Texas, have implemented various measures over the years intended to stop wrongful convictions. Texas changed a statute in 2015 that allows a convict to request a post-conviction DNA test. In 2017, another amended rule requires law enforcement agencies to electronically record interrogations of suspects in serious crimes in their entirety.

“We are quite out of step when it comes to our post-conviction statute,” Amanda Wallwin, state policy advocate at the Innocence Project, said of New York.

“We claim to be a state that cares about racial justice, that cares about the period of justice. It is and should be shameful to allow Texas to outmaneuver us,” she said.

In 2018, New York’s highest court confirmed that people who plead guilty cannot challenge their convictions unless they have DNA evidence supporting their innocence. That requirement makes it very difficult for defendants to get their case before a judge, even if they have strong evidence that is not based on DNA.

According to a report from the New York State Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, the number of criminal cases going to trial in New York has steadily declined over the past thirty years. Approximately 99% of misdemeanor charges and 94% of misdemeanor charges in the state are resolved through guilty pleas.

“In my work, I know there are many circumstances where people plead guilty to crimes because they were advised or misadvised by their attorneys at the time,” said Donna Aldea, an attorney at law firm Barket Epstein Kearon Aldea & LoTurco. “Sometimes they fear that they will face much worse consequences if they go to trial, even if they did not commit the crime.”

She said the state’s criminal justice system is currently structured in a way that makes it impossible for people to challenge their guilty pleas years later if new evidence surfaces, or if they are in a better financial position to fight their convictions to fight.

Under the bill, those who challenge their convictions would receive pro bono representation in court if they cannot afford an attorney. They could also request retesting of physical evidence, as well as access to both the defense and prosecution’s discovery files related to their case.

Senator Zellnor Myrie, a New York City Democrat who sponsored the bill, said he is considering reintroducing the bill during the next legislative session to give innocent people a “fair chance to right a terrible wrong.”

Nick Encalada-Malinowski, the civil rights campaign director for VOCAL-NY, a grassroots organization, said the bill would have removed several barriers for people who had their wrongful conviction cases dismissed on procedural or technical grounds.

The bill, he said, would have given them an opportunity to have their case heard on the merits.

“The problem of wrongful convictions in New York requires a statewide solution,” said Nick Encalada-Malinowski, civil rights campaign director for VOCAL-NY, a grassroots organization. “We’re trying to have a system where people, wherever they are, have the opportunity, if they have been wrongfully convicted, to come back to court and plead their case.”

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Maysoon Khan is a staff member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues. Follow Maysoon Khan Xformerly known as Twitter.

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