Here are the top stories for Saturday, March 11th: A US attorney says he was fired; Donald Trump praised Secret Service for apprehending a White House intruder; At least 40 people died in Syrian blasts; the Chicago River turns green for St. Patrick's Day. AP
TRENTON - Duquene Pierre spent two decades in prison for murder before the Supreme Court reversed his conviction.
It took Dion Harrell 27 years and a DNA test to clear his name after he was wrongfully accused of rape.
Jacob Gentry waited five years for an appeals court to accept his claims of self-defense and reverse his murder conviction.
The three men, all tried in New Jersey, were among the record 166 wrongful convictions overturned across the country last year, according to a new report from the National Registry of Exonerations, the most reliable tracker of such data.
Now a bipartisan duo of New Jersey legislators wants to impanel a special commission to address wrongful convictions in the Garden State.
“If we convict somebody wrongfully, that means the person who committed the crime is still out there. Nobody wins. Everybody loses,” state Sen. Joseph Pennacchio told NJ.com.
The Morris County Republican, a co-sponsor of a new criminal justice bill, considers himself a “law and order conservative.” But he teamed up with Sen. Shirley Turner (D-Mercer), a stalwart liberal, to introduce the measure, which would move to set up a formal state investigatory body charged with freeing the innocent.
Turner said New Jersey’s “criminal justice system is more fallible than we realize.”
While New Jersey has far fewer overturned convictions than many other states, the average exonerated New Jersey prisoner spent 10 years behind bars before they were set free, according to the national registry.
“It’s just inconceivable that you could be in prison for that many years and nobody seems to care,” Turner said.
A range of factors led to the wrongful convictions in New Jersey, from shoddy witness identifications and false confessions to official misconduct and botched forensic examinations.
The state’s court system is inundated with challenges to convictions, and it can take years for public defenders, prosecutors and judges to sort out which cases deserve the closest scrutiny.
New Jersey has also in recent years seen a number of high-profile exonerations, and advocates for the wrongfully convicted are currently waging several years-long court battles to free prisoners they say are innocent.
In 2015, the state and government insurers paid $12.5 million to settle a lawsuit brought by a Union County man, Byron Halsey, after he spent 22 years in prison for pair of brutal child murders he didn’t commit.
Experts on wrongful conviction say the years spent behind bars can wreak havoc on an innocent person’s mental health, and the exonerated often leave prison with no option other than to take up another legal fight in civil court seeking compensation.
The bill (S3045), introduced in late February and currently awaiting a committee hearing, would create the New Jersey Innocence Study and Review Commission, composed of nine members appointed by the heads of three branches of state government.
The commission would, within 18 months of its formation, issue a report detailing reforms to help prevent wrongful convictions in New Jersey, as well as recommending whether the state should establish a “permanent innocence review panel” to review specific cases.
Pennacchio said the proposed commission would also examine the existing restitution system and re-entry programs for the wrongfully convicted.
“We put them in there,” he said. “It’s our responsibility to make sure they get out and can lead good, productive lives.”
While the New Jersey commission’s initial focus would be researching the issue of wrongful conviction, other states have already taken up the task.
In 2009, New York’s judiciary set up a task force to examine wrongful conviction issues, and although advocates say the state has a long way to go to fix its broken system, prosecutors in several jurisdictions there have set up “conviction integrity units” to review cases that may have put the wrong suspect behind bars.
The North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission, established in 2006, is the only state body in the country dedicated solely to reviewing claims of actual innocence — cases where the defendant is seeking release not on a legal technicality, but because they can show they didn’t commit the crime for which they were convicted.
Advocates say the North Carolina commission could serve as a model here in New Jersey, where it often falls upon individual defendants, private lawyers, overburdened public defenders and a handful of advocacy groups to free the innocent.
The New York-based Innocence Project, the most well-known defender of the wrongfully convicted, takes cases across the country, including here in New Jersey. As does Centurion Ministries, a Princeton-based nonprofit with a similar mission.
The Last Resort Exoneration Project, run out of Seton Hall University School of Law, focuses on cases in New Jersey and has been fighting for the release of two Camden men serving life sentences for a 1995 double murder.
Lesley Risinger, who runs the project, declined to comment on the details of the New Jersey bill.
But, she said, “if the ultimate result of this effort is the establishment of an actual innocence review commission along the lines of the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission, then the effort will have been worthwhile.”