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New York Attorney General Proposes Bill for Wrongfully Convicted

Feb 21, 2014

Attorney General (AG) Eric T. Schneiderman just announced that he is filing legislation to enable wrongfully convicted people to sue New York State. If passed, those wrongly convicted of a crime may sue the state despite having confessed to that crime or assisted in bringing about their convictions.

Advocates say the proposal eliminates a key barrier hampering those seeking restitution for their wrongful arrest, prosecution, and imprisonment, according to The New York Law Journal. Schneiderman’s Unjust Imprisonment Act would amend a section of the Court of Claims Act, in which people may sue for restitution if prove innocence and "did not by [their] own conduct cause or bring about ... conviction." The bill also stipulates that the exonerated may pursue a lawsuit if they pleaded guilty or confessed and are unable to prove that their admissions were the cause of coercion or duress, said Schneiderman. The AG also indicated that the amended Act would also address the "all too common" situation in which people confess to crimes they did not commit and discover that they are unable to sue the state if they are exonerated in the future

"It doubly victimizes people who acted out of fear, had a serious mental or psychological problem, or were simply too young to know better, that they admitted doing something they did not do," Schneiderman said. "A statute that allows some wrongfully convicted individuals to seek restitution but denies that legal right to others is an unjust and unequal application of the law."

The legislation says the AG would increase the time to file a damages claim based on a constitutional violation or exculpatory DNA evidence (evidence that may prove innocence) from two to three years and will allow those unable to verify their claim another six months to correct the claim or other technical errors, according to The New York Law Journal.

The provision arose from issues that Fernando Bermudez experienced while making his claim against the state for his 18-year wrongful murder conviction and imprisonment. Mr. Bermudez signed a statement that declared his wrongful conviction, but did not personally verify the claim and, according to the AG, did not correct the error, although he was warned by the AG’s office. The AG now has to seek dismissal of the claim outright, according to The New York Law Journal. The proposed legislation would enable people in the same position another six months with which to fix such verification errors.

Advocates point out that innocent people do confess for crimes for which they are innocent for any number of reasons: youth, immaturity, fear, and coercion, to name a few. To date, since 1991, 27 people in New York had convictions reversed based on DNA evidence; 10 either confessed to crimes they did not commit or made false and self-incriminating statements, according to the Innocence Project at the Cardozo School of Law, The New York Law Journal reported. In a New York State Bar Association study conducted in 2009, police misconduct was cited as a key contributor to wrongful convictions. “These 27 people served an average of 11 years in prison,” the AG said.

Brooklyn Democrat State Assemblyman Joseph Lentol, who chairs the Assembly's Codes Committee, will sponsor the bill in the Assembly. "Somebody confessed to the crime, and courts have said that is a barrier to even getting into court to sue for damages," Lentol said in an interview. "So how do you compensate a person who has spent 20 years of their life wrongfully imprisoned and they cannot even get into court? What do you say, 'Sorry buddy' and give them $50 say, 'You can go home now?' I don't think so," The New York Law Journal reported.

“It is hard to imagine an injustice worse than someone being sent to prison for a crime they did not commit. Not only is the innocent person wrongly denied freedom, the victims of the crime are denied justice and the real perpetrator is still free,” AG Schneiderman said at an appearance at John Jay College in Manhattan. “These people paid a debt they didn’t owe; New York State must make good on the debt we owe them.”

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