Democratic State Representative Brendan Boyle announced this week that he is planning to introduce a bill that he says would enable inmates who are wrongfully convicted to be freed based on the validity of exculpatory evidence.
According to Boyle, right now prosecuting attorneys are only legally and ethically bound to turn over exculpatory evidence — that is evidence that may clear the defendant — before conviction, not post-conviction. Boyle says his legislative proposal would change that — if it’s passed.
“My legislation would make the withholding of this evidence, regardless of when it is obtained, a violation of the defendant’s rights,” Boyle said. Should the legislation become law, prosecutors would be required to turn over exculpatory evidence within five business days after obtaining it.
Exculpatory evidence is the evidence favorable to the defendant during a criminal trial that clears or tends to clear the defendant of any wrongdoing. Boyle cited a 2001 Dauphin County court case in which the defendant was convicted of burglary and other charges and sentenced to 22 to 70 years in prison. Five years later, the prosecuting attorney discovered DNA evidence that exonerated the defendant, but did not disclose that information until several more years had passed, when the defendant filed an unrelated petition for post-conviction relief.
“This Dauphin County court case proves that this legislation is sorely needed to protect people’s rights,” Boyle said. “Had that DNA evidence been turned over when it was first discovered, it is my belief that the defendant would have been saved from serving even more time in prison for a crime he did not commit. It is outrageous that evidence proving innocence has been discovered by prosecutors without being turned over.”
The Pennsylvania Innocence Project has pledged support for the legislation. Attorney Marissa Bluestine, legal director of the Innocence Project, stated, “The Pennsylvania Innocence Project supports any efforts to ensure that only the truly guilty are prosecuted. While there have been isolated incidents of intentional misconduct by prosecutors, we are grateful for the prosecutors who serve their functions every day with honor and integrity. No prosecutor wants an innocent person in prison. This legislation provides guidance for prosecutors in handling issues which arise in the post-conviction setting where no current guidelines exist. Together with Senate Bills 1337 and 1338, pending before the Pennsylvania Senate Judiciary Committee, Representative Boyle’s proposal is geared toward the particular goal of ensuring that only the guilty are prosecuted, and the innocent go free.”
Philadelphia Assistant District Attorney Hugh Burns said that while he wasn’t familiar yet with Boyle’s proposal, prosecutors are already required to turn over all evidence against a defendant.
“The Constitution already requires that we turn over all evidence before trial and in general, after a trial,” Burns said. “Exculpatory evidence is often disputed before a trial, but generally, even after a trial, such evidence has to be disclosed to the defense. Now I don’t have a breakdown of supposedly wrongful convictions in Philadelphia, but there is a lot of misinformation about exonerations. In some of these cases people have been released on the basis of evidence not relevant to guilt. In other cases, witnesses simply weren’t telling the truth.”
Democratic State Representative and Chairman of the Pennsylvania Legislative Black Caucus Ron Waters said he supports the proposal and would like to see broad support for it.
“A lot of people shy away from talking about issues related to individuals convicted of crimes, and in these kinds of cases it’s important that we help them put their lives back together,” Waters said. “Part of the problem comes about for the families of some victimized by crime — say robbed or killed. The family wants justice, and let’s says the police arrest a suspect. The suspect doesn’t have an alibi and can’t afford a good defense attorney. If that person didn’t commit the crime but they still get convicted, the family may feel comforted — but the actual guilty person is still on the street. If the innocent person manages to get released, their biggest problem is pulling their lives back together, and that’s not easy with a criminal record following you. They may be able to get the record expunged — a lengthy process. At the very least we should do that for them. Next, why spend tax-payers money to convict an innocent person? In the legislature it’s always safe to be on the side that’s tough on crime, not soft on crime. We need to be right on crime. Let’s not punish the innocent, but prosecute the guilty.”
A coalition of state legislators, two city council members and several community activists have launched their own tax revolt, urging Mayor Michael Nutter to halt his administration’s plans to move ahead with its Actual Value Initiative.
“We need to reform our property tax system, but we need to do it right,” said Sen. Larry Farnese, calling Nutter’s plan a “back door tax increase.” He added, “We don’t want this.”
Under the administration’s plan, the city would change the basis of real estate taxes from its traditional method using a fraction of the property value, to one based on the market value. Just how the change would affect most property owners is unclear – administration officials admit taxes for many would go up, but contend that for others, it would go down.
A group of 11 people – members of the state House and Senate, city council and two community groups – gathered at Farnese’s South Philadelphia office Friday morning to brief reporters on their united stand against the move to AVI.
“It’s time to wake up,” said Councilman Bill Green, who has been very vocal in his opposition to the mayor’s plan. “Or, you’re going to wake up in October with a tax bill that is an outrage.”
Green and Councilman Mark Squilla have led a charge in City Council against AVI.
Opposition hinges on two main factors.
First, council is expected to pass a budget by June 1, but administration officials have told members that full reassessment numbers will not be available until July at the earliest. That concerns council members who worry that they are being asked to approve a budget based on incomplete numbers.
“We don’t have all the information,” Squilla said this week.
In order to set the tax rate, Squilla and Green argued, council needs to know the aggregate value of all of Philadelphia’s real estate. Assessors are wrapping up their valuation of the city’s residential properties, but have not started reassessing commercial or industrial properties yet.
“We need to be able to have all the values in place before we tell the people what their taxes are going to be,” he said. “There is no way to know what millage we need to come up with.”
Nutter’s spokesman, Mark McDonald, said the change is already underway, and that when the new numbers have been generated the city will be obliged to go ahead.
“We are in the process of implementing AVI, which is for the first time in generations going to provide fair and accurate property assessments to all property holders,” he said. “Those numbers will be available later this year, and it would not be right to not use them.”
The lack of numbers from the administration is not the only reason opponents object.
Green also cautioned that the move to AVI involves a shift that places more of the financial burden on residential property owners. On Monday he introduced a bill that would increase the city’s use and occupancy tax, a move he said would equalize the tax burden on residential and business property owners.
Green is also among those who object to AVI on the grounds that it’s not revenue neutral.
The shift to the new system would generate an additional $94 million, earmarked for the school district. That concerned many of the people gathered at Farnese’s office, who agreed the move was a tax increase by another name. State rules generally force any municipality making a similar shift to collect the same total revenue before and after the change, something officials said is needed to maintain confidence in the system.
Nutter’s plan does not do that, they said.
“[Nutter] is already cooking the books,” said state Rep. Brendan Boyle. “And the people of Philadelphia have had enough.”
Noting that property taxes have gone up each year for the last three years, he added, “We cannot have a third property tax increase.”
Green has proposed an amendment to Nutter’s plan to keep it revenue neutral.
State Rep. Mike O’Brien said he was introducing legislation in Harrisburg that would force the city to freeze its wage tax, rather than reduce it as planned, and give the difference – roughly $86.3 million – to the school district.
They also contend that school district officials were wrong who cautioned that without the additional $94 million provided in Nutter’s budget, schools would not open the fall.
“Contrary to what the school district will tell you, the schools must open in September,” Green said.
Green urged residents to oppose Nutter’s plan by calling the mayor’s office and their council person or state legislator.
“Let your representatives know you want to wait a year,” he said.
Pa. rated a ‘D-’ on state-by-state report
The good news, according to the recently released, first-ever State Policy Report Card issued by national education nonprofit StudentsFirst, is that Pennsylvania, at 19th, ranks in the upper half of states in terms of education reform; the bad news is the grade the commonwealth received — “D+” — shows that Pennsylvania still has a long way to go in terms of remodeling its public education offerings.
Leaders from StudentsFirst, including its founder and CEO Michelle Rhee, held a conference call to explain the merits of the grades, which are based on the group’s three pillars of education: elevating and improving the teaching profession, empowering parents with information and choice and, finally, ensuring public dollars are being spent wisely on student education.
Parents, educations and stakeholders can view and download the report card on StudentsFirst website, http://reportcard.studentsfirst.org.
“The most powerful way to improve student achievement from outside the classroom is to shape policy and implement laws at the state level that govern education,” Rhee said. “That is why our report card focuses singularly on the education policies in place in each of our states. And when we look solely at policy, it’s clear that we have a long way to go toward improving our education system in America.”
That this is the first year of the report card, a tough grade could be expected, as only two states — Louisiana and Florida — earned the highest grades of all states by obtaining a “B-” for “beginning to adopt this kind of student-centered policies that bring more rigor and accountability into their school systems and expand parents’ access to quality school choice.”
Even school districts that normally produce above-average student grades have scored poorly on the StudentsFirst Report Card. Massachusetts, for example, is usually is in the top one-third of states when it comes to student test scores, but the state also experienced a widening achievement gap between white and Hispanic students, which contributed to the state receiving a “D+” grade.
In the tri-state area, Pennsylvania fell right between Delaware, which received a “C-,” and New Jersey, which received a “D.”
“Pennsylvania has the opportunity to become a leader by enacting innovative education policies. In order to do this, the state must continue to build on the momentum created in 2012,” said StudentsFirst Pennsylvania Director Ashley DeMauro. “We must continue to work together to ensure all students are given the opportunity to achieve. It’s an issue that affects our state’s economic competitiveness and one of utmost importance when it comes to placing our children on a path of lifelong success.”
Specifically, Pennsylvania was cited as a standout model based on the implementation of the Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit, the Educational Improvement Tax Credit and the state’s increased fiscal transparency in the education sector.
Showing that education can trump partisanship, two state legislators from opposite sides of the aisle agreed with StudentsFirst assessment of Pennsylvania public education, and vowed to act on them.
“The StudentsFirst report card is a thoughtful, well-researched tool that helps lawmakers and parents see where states stand relative to one another on some of the most important measures in education today,” said Democratic state Representative Brendan Boyle. “I believe the more information the better. So I appreciate having this tool as we work toward creating policies that give parents more information, reward good teachers and force government to spend tax dollars wisely.”
Ryan Aument, a Republican state representative whose serves Lancaster County and is influential in state education legislation, also endorsed the report card.
“This report card should be used as an education reform roadmap because it charts the path toward truly improving our schools, with a singular focus on students,” said Aument. “It grades state laws and shows where policymakers can do a better job of helping transform public schools, and it makes it a valuable tool for anyone concerned with the state of education.
“As the prime sponsor of Pennsylvania’s legislation that improved our educator evaluation system last session, I am pleased about the progress Pennsylvania is making and plan to continue building on the momentum.”
Questions in slain police officer case
Democratic State Rep. Brendan Boyle held a House Police Committee hearing this week to investigate why Rafael Jones, the man accused of murdering Police Officer Moses Walker, was not in prison.
Boyle, who served as chairman, requested the hearing to address parole procedures in response to Walker's shooting. According to Boyle and other officials, Jones, a felon with a lengthy criminal record, was allowed to be on the streets for two weeks without an electronic ankle bracelet after being released from jail and placed under house arrest. Even more significant, they said, per the terms of his parole, Jones should have been behind bars if he tested positive for drugs. Two days after his release, he allegedly tested positive for marijuana. But, Boyle said, his parole officer allowed him to go free.
"It was extremely imperative that we get some answers from the Parole Board about how system failures like this can happen, and to receive assurance that such incidents will be prevented in the future," Boyle said in a press release. "I appreciate today's testifiers for answering our questions, and I look forward to studying the testimony we heard today to see if further action by the legislature is necessary."
The public hearings were held on Tuesday at the Community Charter School on Byberry Road. As of Tribune press time, the Pennsylvania Board of Probation and Parole continues to investigate the case.
"The tragic death of Officer Walker was the direct result of the failures in our parole system," Boyle said in a press release. "We need to get answers from the Parole Board as to why this happened. We also need to correct these problems to prevent any such incidents in the future."
Walker Jr., 40, was shot several times, allegedly by Jones, around 6 a.m. on Aug.18 during an attempted robbery about four blocks from his station in North Philadelphia. The 19-year-veteran was unmarried and had no children.