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New Jersey Looks to Free More Innocent Incarcerated People

The state of New Jersey has created and is about to implement a new plan for handling the prosecution and jailing of innocent people. State lawmakers are looking to create special panel that will be responsible for reviewing wrongful conviction claims. Bipartisan legislation for the New Jersey Innocence Study and Review Commission has been advanced by the state Senate.

Meanwhile, the state’s Attorney General, Gurbir Grewal, is deciding whether or not to create a special unit within his office that would be responsible for reexamining cases where DNA or other evidence makes an individual’s conviction questionable.

Wrongful Convictions Spur on Efforts

Both efforts were pushed forward after two men from Paterson were freed last year by a state Superior Court Judge. Both Ralph Lee and Eric Kelley spent 24 years in prison before prosecutors in Passaic County dropped the case against them all together, rather than even retrying them.

This came about after a 2017 special report from NJ Advance Media showed that two legal groups, Centurion Ministries, and the Innocence Project, had looked at DNA testing that pointed to an alternate suspect, raising doubts about both men’s convictions.

The Current Process for Those Wrongfully Convicted

At present, individuals who are incarcerated for a crime that they allege they have not committed must walk through a lengthy appeals process that often takes decades. Several exonorees showed up with the hope of convincing lawmakers to pass the new bill. One such exonoree is Rodney Roberts, who served 17 years in jail before having his sexual assault conviction overturned in 1996 due to DNA evidence. He explained that once you are convicted and sentenced, it is pretty much pointless trying to claim your innocence.

Potential New Bill S406 for the Wrongfully Convicted

This new bill, S406, would create a commission for researching the overall status of wrongful convictions in New Jersey. Later on, the panel would be given the power to review evidence for specific cases and to present what they find to a judge. The commission would also look at the way in which exonorees are compensated and would work to help them reintegrate back into society.

State Senator Believes in “One Cohesive Policy”

State Sen. Joe Pennacchio, who has been a staunch supporter of the bill, believes that New Jersey must still agree upon “one cohesive policy” when it comes to dealing with wrongful convictions. He believes that the policy must discuss everything from freeing the wrongfully convicted; to helping them reintegrate and get back on their feet.

At the hearing, the Judiciary Committee Chairman, Sen. Nicholas Scutari, D-Union, revealed that he would sign on as a sponsor of the bill. The bill has weakened, sitting in the Democratic-controlled Legislature for more than a year now.

The bill still requires a vote from the full Senate and Assembly, upon which it will head to Gov. Phil Murphy.

Posted in: Expungement Law