Opinion: New York has a long way to go on wrongful convictions

Legislation approved by the state Senate and Assembly would create a working pathway to exoneration in our state.

Hans Neleman – Getty

When I was twenty years old, I was arrested and charged with a crime I did not commit. I ended up spending a year at Rikers Island. I couldn’t make bail and was coerced into taking a plea, even though the complaining witness in the case was no longer cooperating with prosecutors. Now I must forever live with that conviction.  

My experience is unfortunately not unique – like so many Black and brown New Yorkers, I have been permanently harmed by the criminal legal system. We should have an opportunity to reopen cases that ended in wrongful conviction, especially if our cases were fraught with malfeasance. Specifically, we need to provide a working mechanism for people like me who were wrongfully convicted to clear our names.

Last Monday was recognized as Wrongful Conviction Day, acknowledging the pervasive and continuous harms of wrongful convictions in our state. Awaiting Gov. Hochul’s signature is the Challenging Wrongful Conviction Act, legislation that would create a working pathway to exoneration in our state. The bill has had broad public support

This bill proposes comprehensive changes to New York’s only legal mechanism for exonerations. The current law makes it unjustifiably difficult for someone to bring a claim if they were wrongfully convicted. Furthermore, there is currently no right to a hearing, discovery, or appeal in a post-judgment court proceeding. The Challenging Wrongful Convictions Act addresses all of these issues.

Right now in New York state, if you plead guilty to a crime, you can only bring a claim stating your innocence with DNA evidence exonerating you. This is one of the strictest wrongful convictions laws in the country –  and far out of step with other states. New York’s highest court reaffirmed this rule in a 2018 case, People v. Tiger. Natascha Tiger, a nurse convicted in this case, pled guilty to a charge that she had harmed a disabled child in her care in order to avoid a long prison sentence. Years later, evidence came out that the child was harmed by the medication they were taking at the time - not by any action of Tiger. 

More than a decade later, Ms. Tiger is still fighting for an exoneration despite everyone, except the local District Attorney, acknowledging that no crime was committed. The Challenging Wrongful Convictions Act would ensure that all people get their day in court to put on evidence of their innocence, even if they pleaded guilty.

We also know that wrongful convictions happen far too often in New York. Our state ranks third in the nation in numbers of wrongful convictions. The root of these tragic, unacceptable errors is often in police and prosecutor misconduct. Between 2021 and 2023, district attorney offices in Manhattan, Kings, Queens, and Bronx Counties have dismissed a total of over 1,200 criminal cases because police officers involved in those cases had allegations and convictions of criminal misconduct and perjury. Reports of coerced confessions, false testimonies, and manipulation of witnesses have further cast a shadow of doubt over the legitimacy of these convictions. These more than 1,200 cases serve as a stark reminder that wrongful convictions in New York are pervasive, and that the current law is not doing nearly enough to protect innocent people.

To take a person away from their family, remove them from their community and imprison them wrongfully is one of the greatest harms the state can inflict upon an individual. I luckily survived this, and I have the scars to show for it. I fight for this change in the law because others shouldn’t suffer the way that I did. 

This October 2nd, the Governor should sign the Challenging Wrongful Convictions Act to show that wrongful convictions have no place in our legal system and that New York is prepared to take steps to root out injustice wherever it exists.

Roger Clark is a Community Leader and criminal legal system reform advocate at VOCAL-NY.

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