In a move that could be a game-changer for many wrongfully convicted individuals, on Wednesday Governor Jerry Brown signed Senate Bill 1134 into law. The bill, authored by Democratic Senator Mark Leno and Republican Senator Joel Anderson, facilitates wrongfully convicted people in California to use new evidence to prove their innocence.
As the California Innocence Project, a key co-sponsor of the bill, noted in a press release, “For far too long, Californians convicted and imprisoned for crimes they did not commit have struggled, and most often failed, to prove their innocence because the standard of proof, ‘points unerringly to innocence,’ was so hard to meet.”
In a press release from Mark Leno’s office, “SB 1134 ensures that when innocent people are convicted, there is a fair and reasonable path to clear their names if new evidence is later found to support their claims of innocence.”
“The wrongful incarceration of an innocent person is a grave injustice,” said Senator Leno. “With the Governor’s approval of SB 1134, California joins 43 states in giving innocent people a fair chance to prove that their convictions should be reversed.”
“For many years California has been the most difficult place in the United States to bring a new evidence claim on behalf of innocent clients,” noted Professor Justin Brooks, Director of the California Innocence Project (CIP) at California Western School of Law, who spoke at the Vanguard Court Watch Event last November on Wrongful Convictions.
He added, “Finally, we have a standard where the courts can reverse a conviction based on new evidence that would have led to an acquittal had it been introduced at trial. This law makes sense, has bi-partisan support, is consistent with the new evidence standards across the United States, and will save taxpayers the cost of housing innocent people in prison.”
Under existing California law, inmates who have been convicted of committing a crime but claim that they are factually innocent may file a petition for writ of habeas corpus, which could potentially result in a new trial. However, the burden for proving one’s innocence based on newly-available evidence is extraordinarily high in California, as it must undermine the prosecution’s entire case and “point unerringly to innocence with evidence no reasonable jury could reject.”
SB 1134 creates a new standard of proof for habeas claims based on new evidence. Under this proposed standard, an individual claiming to be factually innocent who is seeking a new trial would be required to present the court with new evidence which “would have more likely than not changed the outcome at trial.”
With the advent of new forensic techniques, new evidence not known at the time of trial has become more commonplace. Courts across the country have reversed convictions of hundreds innocent people based on new evidence. In fact, since 1989 more than 1,760 innocent people nationwide have been exonerated. In California, new evidence almost never meets the “points unerringly to innocence” standard, and individuals must turn to other post-conviction claims.
“For too long, wrongfully convicted people in California have struggled to prove their innocence using new evidence, because the standard of proof has been impossibly difficult,” noted Lucy Salcido Carter, policy director for the Northern California Innocence Project. “The passage of SB 1134 is a victory for justice because people wrongfully convicted and imprisoned now have a real chance to prove their innocence and to regain their freedom. We are delighted that Governor Brown signed SB 1134 into law and thank Senator Leno for authoring this important bill.”
The bill received unanimous bipartisan support in both the Senate and Assembly. “Legislators on both sides of the aisle recognize the injustice of wrongful convictions and the immeasurable harm to innocent people when their freedom is taken away,” stated an Innocence Project release.
The bill was sponsored by the California Innocence Project (CIP), the Northern California Innocence Project (NCIP) at Santa Clara University School of Law, Loyola Law School’s Project for the Innocent (LPI), and the ACLU co-sponsored the bill.
“We are proud that a strong bipartisan coalition of Republicans and Democrats committed to ensuring that wrongfully convicted people have viable legal remedies to prove their innocence,” said Hadar Harris, Executive Director of the NCIP at Santa Clara University School of Law.
NCIP, CIP, and LPI fight to free innocent people who have been wrongfully convicted and incarcerated in California. Since 1999, California-based innocence organizations have helped 44 innocent people regain their freedom; these individuals collectively spent more than 530 years in prison. NCIP represents clients with cases in the 48 northern counties of California. CIP represents clients with cases in the 10 southern counties, including Los Angeles County. LPI represents clients with cases in various counties, but focuses on cases in Los Angeles County.
In a separate action, Governor Brown signed AB 813, sponsored by Assemblymember Lorena Gonzalez. “AB 813 provides much-needed relief for the wrongly convicted and immigrants whose lawyers didn’t advise them of the immigration consequences of pleading guilty,” the ACLU explained in a release.
In response to the bill’s approval, Maya Ingram, Legislative Advocate with the ACLU of the California Center for Advocacy and Policy, said: “Once again, California is bringing a ray of fairness to the immigration and criminal justice systems, which are plagued by injustices.
She added, “AB 813 offers a simple procedural change to state law, but its impact will be life-changing for innocent people and immigrants facing the threat of deportation due to old, invalid convictions. We thank Governor Brown for signing it.”
Under current law, only people who are serving their time or are on parole or probation can challenge their conviction and ask a court to review it. Once someone is released, they cannot challenge that conviction – even if there is newly-discovered evidence to prove their innocence.
“This gap in the law has a particularly devastating effect on innocent individuals who are wrongly convicted and immigrants who plead guilty to a crime without being advised that this plea could result in their deportation,” the release explains. “Although AB 813 does not guarantee the automatic reversal of the conviction, it does offer an opportunity to ask a judge to reconsider the validity of the conviction.”
The new law will take effect January 1, 2017. California joins 44 other states and the federal court system in providing immigrants a pathway to challenge legally invalid convictions.
—David M. Greenwald reporting