As innocent people often plead guilty to crimes, legislation could open pathways to freedom

Robyn Frankel, director of the Michigan Attorney General’s Conviction Integrity Unit, testifies in the state House Criminal Justice Committee on March 5. (Michigan Advance/Anna Liz Nichols)

By Michigan Advance

March 13, 2024

BY ANNA LIZ NICHOLS, MICHIGAN ADVANCE

MICHIGAN—Almost all criminal convictions in the US result from guilty pleas and experts note that innocent people plead guilty to crimes they didn’t commit.

Legislation that’s heading to the House floor after it passed the Criminal Justice Committee Tuesday would expand eligibility for getting a new trial and amend the procedure for those found to be wrongfully convicted to receive compensation from the state.

Guilty pleas account for about 95% of criminal convictions in state courts in the US, according to the US Department of Justice. And in cases where a person was exonerated due to post-conviction DNA testing, almost 30% of people had falsely confessed to the crime, The Innocence Project reports.

“Innocent people enter guilty pleas sometimes because of stress, mental exhaustion, promises of lenient sentences or even difficulty understanding their rights,” state Rep. Kara Hope (D-Holt) told the Criminal Justice Committee during a meeting last week.

Her bill, House Bill 5271, amends existing rules surrounding DNA evidence testing after a person is convicted of a crime.

The legislation looks to expand eligibility for a person convicted of a crime who is seeking a new trial on the basis of DNA testing results. The parameters for people who can petition the court to order DNA testing of evidence gathered during the investigation in order to seek a new trial would be broadened.

One of the biggest changes proposed would be opening the door to those who pleaded guilty to be permitted to petition for DNA testing and a new trial. Current law only allows those who didn’t take a plea to petition.

No one benefits from the wrong person going to prison, including the victim as a wrongful conviction means the real perpetrator is still free to commit more crimes, said Robyn Frankel, director of the Michigan Attorney General’s Conviction Integrity Unit.

“The inability to obtain DNA testing has historically been a barricade in investigating innocence claims,” Frankel said. “It doesn’t matter how a person gets convicted. We can spend hours debating the idea of false confessions, do they occur and do they not occur? Why do innocent people plead guilty? But none of that matters. If an innocent person is convicted, all that matters is that we try to correct the wrong. We shouldn’t be afraid of the science.”

Current law also sets different criteria for those convicted of a felony charge before January 8, 2001, when Michigan passed legislation on post-conviction DNA testing, and those who were convicted after to file a petition. But the bill would eliminate the distinction.

Marla Mitchell-Cichon of the Cooley Law Innocence Project, which works on the release of wrongfully convicted prisoners, said the bill serves to extend justice to those who have suffered injustice by the court system.

“I think one of the key reasons why this bill is so important, is because we did not fathom in 2001 how much the technology would continue to improve,” Mitchell-Cichon said.

Currently, the law outlines that only cases after January 8, 2001, where there was DNA previously tested are eligible for petitioning post-conviction DNA testing. The previous results must have been inconclusive and there would need to be indication that current DNA technology would likely result in conclusive results.

The legislation looks to change the eligibility to allow post-conviction DNA testing to be performed even if it wasn’t tested previously.

Considering the number of convictions where a guilty plea was entered, Rep. Graham Filler (R-St. Johns) said he’s concerned about the possibility that opening eligibility further could lead to new frivolous motions.

“People who get their liberty taken away for crimes they didn’t commit is basically the worst thing the government can do to you,” Filler said. “Is this bill a proportional step, or will it lead to a lot of new frivolous motions?”

Courts would be required under the legislation to order DNA testing if the defendant offers a valid assertion that the DNA evidence, which is available for testing, to be tested could offer necessary clarification to reject the assertion that they are the perpetrator. Current law also requires that the requested biological material subject for post-conviction testing was not previously tested or that the matter of which it will be retested was not made available at the time of conviction.

House Bill 5271 would also remove other requirements to gain a hearing to determine if the results of the testing and any additional pieces of evidence qualify a retrial that could result in a different decision by the court.

To supplement individuals’ ability to access post-conviction DNA testing, the requirement that an investigating law enforcement agency has to preserve biological material for the duration of the person’s incarceration would be expanded to the duration of probation, parole or sex offender registry.

Lawmakers are seeking to create ease in the process for a person to receive compensation from the state when they’ve served a term of imprisonment for a crime they didn’t commit. House Bill 5431 would create several changes in the Wrongful Imprisonment Compensation Act.

The bill would add eligibility for compensation for those who receive pardons from the governor, which is currently not included in the act.

Individuals making a claim for compensation in the Court of Claims after receiving a pardon or having their conviction thrown out would have an adjusted burden of proof under the bill.

Current law states that there needs to be “clear and convincing” evidence of the person’s wrongful conviction in the Court of Claims case, which is a higher burden of proof than other civil cases, Rep. Joey Andrews (D-St. Joseph) said.

“This higher burden of proof goes against the purpose of compensating the innocent,” Andrews said. “Instead of being fair and swift, this burden of proof can often be insurmountable, particularly in older cases where evidence or records or witnesses might be unavailable for various reasons.”

The bill would change “clear and convincing” to “a preponderance of the evidence” to hasten the process to receive compensation for those who have already proven their innocence.

The current law says a person is eligible for a reimbursement of $50,000 for each year they were incarcerated after being wrongfully convicted, as well as covering their legal fees they accrued. But individuals are not eligible for compensation if their sentence ran concurrently to another sentence. The legislation seeks to change that exception as well as include time served if they were committed to a residential mental health facility.

Both bills passed the House Criminal Justice Committee on Tuesday.

READ MORE: Whitmer signs new laws to protect victims in court—and stiffen penalties for some crimes

This coverage was republished from Michigan Advance pursuant to a Creative Commons license. 

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