Scant hope for Pennsylvania's wrongly convicted

Posted: June 21, 2012

How many innocent people are in prison? Although we may never have a complete answer to that question, we now know that over the past two decades, more than 2,000 Americans have been exonerated of crimes they were wrongly convicted of, 29 of them in Pennsylvania. The law schools of Northwestern University and the University of Michigan conducted an exhaustive review of all known exonerations in the United States and detailed many of them in their new National Registry of Exonerations.

Most sobering to us at the Pennsylvania Innocence Project is what the numbers don't tell us: How many more people are in prison for crimes they didn't commit? And how many have completed sentences or died in prison without having a chance to clear their names?

These questions can't be answered because so few people who are wrongly convicted get a chance to prove their innocence in court. Access to justice after conviction is limited, especially in Pennsylvania.

When it's available, DNA evidence can be extremely useful in determining guilt or innocence. But in more than 80 percent of serious felony cases, there is no biological evidence available for DNA testing. And in an unknown number of cases — including all Philadelphia cases before 1986 — evidence that could have been tested was destroyed long ago. For the overwhelming majority of those convicted of felonies, DNA can't help.

That leaves the wrongly convicted to rely on other forms of evidence — witnesses who recant, new information, improved forensic techniques. These are long shots at best for most convicted innocents.

The first obstacle to innocence claims is expense. Investigating cases after conviction takes months or years of work.

The exoneration registry shows that fully half of all its exonerations — and two-thirds of homicide exonerations — involved false testimony. Discovering such deception is a time-consuming, laborious process. First, witnesses have to be located and interviewed. Then, if one does admit lying (usually for a benefit such as reward money or a lighter sentence), additional evidence of innocence is still required, because courts routinely hold that recantations are unreliable.

Even if an inmate has the resources for a post-conviction investigation, his chances in Pennsylvania are slight. State law sets extremely strict deadlines for inmates to file petitions asserting their innocence after conviction. And in Pennsylvania, unlike any other state in the nation or the federal system, an inmate who misses a deadline even by a single day can't have his claim heard. Other courts treat deadlines for such claims more flexibly and equitably, stretching them when there is convincing evidence of innocence, for example.

Our criminal justice system must act with a degree of finality to maintain the confidence of the public, particularly crime victims. But while it should always be difficult to overturn a conviction, it should not be impossible. We have to start acknowledging the innocents in prison and ensuring that viable and credible claims get their day in court.

Marissa Boyers Bluestine is legal director for the Pennsylvania Innocence Project. The National Registry of Exonerations can be found at exonerationregistry.org.

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