Advances in the State Assembly initiative that benefits people convicted by mistake

In the last 33 years, 331 people have been exonerated in the state. /File, Archive

Photo: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

On May 23, Comptroller Brad Lander announced a settlement awarding $7 million to a man who sued New York City after spending 23 years in prison for a wrongful conviction.

Grant Williams was convicted of a 1996 murder on Staten Island and exonerated in 2021. He later filed a lawsuit alleging police misconduct and violation of his civil rights.

On Tuesday night, the state Assembly took a major step to give wrongfully convicted New Yorkers like Williams a chance to prove their innocence by passing the Challenging Wrongful Convictions Act.

This legislation, sponsored by Senator Zellnor Myrie and Assemblyman Dan Quart, makes critical improvements to New York State’s existing post-conviction relief framework that only allows convicted persons to petition the court for post-conviction relief if DNA evidence emerges.

Among other things, this bill eliminates plea bargains on claims of innocence when there is new credible evidence, grants a right to findings in the post-conviction process, and establishes the right to counsel for those with claims of conviction. unfair.

New York is one of five states in the US that does not provide the right to an attorney in post-conviction cases, on a par with Texas and Alabama.

“By removing procedural barriers and enshrining in the law the right to a hearing and counsel in post-conviction cases, we can ensure that there is a path to exoneration,” said Assemblyman Quart.

In New York and across the country, many innocent people plead guilty because they were coerced, don’t believe they can win at trial, or face incredibly harsh sentences. 98% of convictions in New York are the result of guilty pleas. According to the National Registry of Exonerations (NRE), more than one in five of the more than 3,000 people who have been exonerated since 1989 have pleaded guilty despite their innocence. In the last 33 years, 331 people have been exonerated in the state.

For his part, Senator Myrie said that wrongful convictions are an affront to justice and harm the cause of public safety.

“Our laws should make it easier for innocent people to challenge their convictions in court,” the legislator said.

The Wrongful Sentencing Challenge Act, now moving to the state Senate for approval, has had the support of groups like the Innocence Project, VOCAL-NY and New York County Defender Services.

For Rebecca Brown, policy director of the Innocence Project, it is inconceivable that truly innocent people are forced to languish behind bars simply because they plead guilty.

“New York has the third highest number of disclosed wrongful convictions in the nation. However, current New York law makes it impossible for innocent people who plead guilty and do not have the benefit of DNA evidence to challenge their convictions in court. This prevents people with credible claims of innocence from obtaining redress in court,” Brown said.

“This bill, if it becomes law, will finally provide a chance for justice,” he said.