Time to fix Connecticut’s law to exonerate the innocent

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People often ask me why I am not angry about spending 17 years in prison for a crime I did not commit. I actually consider myself lucky in a way, because DNA eventually proved my innocence. However, DNA is unavailable in 90 percent of cases, and here in Connecticut it is almost impossible to overturn a wrongful conviction without it.

In our state, while new DNA evidence can be presented at any time, new non-DNA evidence must be introduced within three years of a conviction. This means that if an innocent person is sent to prison, and the actual perpetrator confesses to the crime three years and one day after the guilty verdict, the innocent person is probably out of luck.

Connecticut’s law is out of step with the rest of the country — only four other states have this kind of absolute deadline, and most have no time limit at all. This roadblock to justice is especially problematic for overturning wrongful convictions based on flawed forensic evidence because it often takes years for the scientific community to recognize problems and establish new standards.

For example, Alford Swinton was wrongfully convicted of a murder in Hartford based on expert testimony that his teeth matched bite marks found on the victim. In March 2018, he was exonerated after spending 16 years in prison because DNA testing excluded him and the bite mark expert acknowledged that his trial testimony was no longer scientifically supported. Without the DNA, Swinton would not have been able to present the new bite-mark evidence and would likely still be in prison.

Senate Bill 509, which is currently being considered by the Connecticut General Assembly, would remove the arbitrary deadline for people to get a new trial based on new evidence. It would also clarify that new evidence includes scientific advancements that discredit forensic testimony or analyses used in convictions, mirroring recent laws passed in Texas and California. The bill passed the Joint Judiciary Committee, and now the full Senate and House should approve it.

Some have argued that this problem should be addressed through a different bill moving through the legislature that would establish a state habeas task force. But the state habeas law was meant for people to challenge convictions based on constitutional violations, not new evidence. While state habeas has become the only hope for the innocent, it has failed wrongfully convicted people like Bobby Johnson.

Johnson was convicted of murder in New Haven, and five years later his attorney found new evidence — the same gun was used in similar killings that occurred a few months earlier and were linked to another man, and the informant who allegedly led a detective to Johnson was completely made up. Despite strong proof of innocence, courts denied his state habeas claim. Eventually, the New Haven State’s Attorney agreed to vacate Johnson’s conviction after he spent nearly a decade in prison.

Had Senate Bill 509 been in effect, Bobby Johnson could have been spared additional years behind bars for a crime he didn’t commit. Taxpayers also could have been spared the expense of court resources spent litigating the case through the inappropriate avenue of state habeas, and the cost of incarcerating an innocent person.

Innocent people like me deserve a real path to overturn their wrongful convictions —whether or not there is DNA. Senate Bill 509 would help the wrongfully convicted get justice and law enforcement find the actual perpetrators.

James Tillman was wrongfully convicted of a 1988 rape and kidnapping in Hartford  and was exonerated with DNA evidence in 2006, after spending 17 years in prison.


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