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.”