ANNAPOLIS — Until two years ago in Maryland, filing a petition for a writ of actual innocence or petitioning to test newly discovered DNA evidence were two ways a defendant could seek post-conviction relief — and potentially win their freedom. But in two Maryland Court of Appeals decisions — Yonga v. State in 2015 and Jamison v. State the following year — the court determined individuals who accepted pleas were no longer eligible to petition for a writ of actual innocence or the testing of newly discovered DNA evidence.
More than 95 percent of defendants in criminal cases nationwide accept plea bargains, according to the Innocence Project, a legal group working to free innocent people who are incarcerated.
Proponents of Senate Bill 423, sponsored by Sen. Robert A. “Bobby” Zirkin, D-Baltimore County, argued — and opponents conceded — that innocent people sometimes plead guilty to crimes they do not commit. The bill, which now awaits Gov. Larry Hogan’s signature, would extend post-conviction relief rights to individuals who accepted plea bargains.
“The bottom line is, if you’re innocent, you should not be in prison,” said Zirkin, chairman of the Judicial Proceedings Committee. “There are times when individuals plea to things that they may not have done because it’s the better idea in terms of … if you’re looking at a ton of time and there’s a plea for less.”
But opponents of the bill, including the Maryland Crime Victims’ Resource Center and several state’s attorneys, said the bill would open the floodgates for criminals to appeal their convictions, effectively disrupting the criminal justice system.
“(Crime victims) have an interest in avoiding unnecessary confrontations with those who perpetrated crimes against them and their loved ones,” Russell P. Butler, executive director of the Maryland Crime Victims’ Resource Center, said in written testimony. “Finality of convictions is a bedrock principle of the judicial system.”
With amendments, SB 423 establishes that people who were convicted by way of guilty plea, Alford plea or no contest may petition for a writ of actual innocence and for the testing of newly discovered DNA evidence.
Under the bill, the court will grant a writ or the test by determining whether “a reasonable probability exists that the DNA testing has the scientific potential to produce exculpatory or mitigating evidence relevant to a claim of wrongful conviction or sentencing.”
The court may either “grant a new trial or vacate the conviction if the court determines that the DNA test results establish by clear and convincing evidence the petitioner’s innocence,” the bill states.
Zirkin negotiated with proponents and opponents to find a compromise on amendments.
One such amendment states if the court orders a new trial, both the prosecution and defense can bring in any evidence in the possession of law enforcement at the time of the original trial, regardless of whether it was included in the statement of facts accompanying the original plea bargain.
Zirkin’s amended bill also contains a provision that allows either party to appeal the court’s post-conviction ruling. Under existing statute, the state has not been eligible to appeal the court’s decision.
A spokeswoman for Gov. Larry Hogan said he will “closely review” the legislation.