Roadblocks to Proving Innocence

by TChris

It isn't unusual for states to erect barriers that make it difficult or impossible for wrongfully convicted inmates to win their freedom by proving their innocence. Conservative lawmakers seem to believe that "finality" rather than justice should be the ultimate goal of the criminal justice system: get the case done, don't worry so much about whether it was done right, and don't burden the court with these pesky claims about innocence.

Virginia recently repealed a law that barred inmates from seeking a new trial based on newly discovered evidence of innocence unless they presented that evidence to the court within 21 days of sentencing. If the true culprit confessed on day 22, too bad for the innocent man who was sentenced to life. That law would have prevented David Wayne Boyce (featured yesterday in TalkLeft) from presenting DNA evidence showing that someone else probably committed the murder that resulted in his conviction.

But Virginia replaced that law with a requirement that limits an inmate to one and only one chance to prove his innocence. The result: if you aren't successful on the first try and later find compelling evidence of innocence, you're out of luck.

"Some members of the General Assembly are more concerned about finality of convictions than correctness," said Steven D. Benjamin, president of the Virginia Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, in Richmond. "There is no moral justification for closing the courts for a person who is able to prove his innocence.

It doesn't "burden" courts to require them to hear evidence of wrongful convictions. Justice should never be seen as a burden.

Nor should lawmakers accept the conservative philosophy that a little unfairness makes us all safer -- that keeping the innocent behind bars is a small price to pay if it keeps the guilty from being set free.

For those who shrug and say a wrongly convicted person is a small price to pay for safer streets, consider that for every wrongly convicted person in prison, there's a guilty person, likely running around free.

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