NEW YORK — The Empire State has the country’s third highest rate of overturned convictions. A new set of proposed state laws aims to change the situation, and on Wednesday, they got a major endorsement from people who know about the injustice of wrongful conviction firsthand.
There are three bills proposed in Albany.
On Wednesday, three of the five men known as the Exonerated Five — Raymond Santana, Kevin Richardson, and Yusef Salaam — joined State Sen. Zellnor Myrie and Assemblymember Clyde Burrell to give their support to the bills.
The five men were first known at the Central Park Five — five teens wrongfully accused and then convicted of the attempted murder and rape of Central Park jogger Trisha Melli in 1989.
Salaam said these bills were born of grass roots activism working with activist legislators.
“You have to agitate on the outside while you have people on the inside,” he said after speaking at a rally along the north border of Central Park, a place to which Salaam and his lifelong friends have been associated, due to their high-profile case.
The bills aim to accomplish three specific things. One bill would prevent the common practice of law enforcement falsely claiming to arrestees that they have evidence against them that doesn’t exist. It’s one of a variety of practices — legal at the time — that helped put the five individuals behind bars.
“We’re out here in the forefront,” said Richardson, about his advocacy for the bill, “because of what we’ve been through. Now it’s time to pay it forward for others.”
He and the other four defendants, who also included Antron McCray and Korey Wise, were also told by detectives after they were arrested in 1989 that they should talk with investigators without a lawyer present. One of the new bills would end that practice as well.
Another would allow a defendant to use a wide variety of evidence to prove their innocence if they’ve pled guilty. Currently, only DNA evidence can overturn such cases.
Martin Tankleff, who was exonerated in the murder of his parents and was also at Wednesday’s rally, spoke afterward about the need for a wide variety of evidence being allowed in hearings that can lead to exonerations.
“You cannot just isolate one piece of evidence,” said Tankleff, who is also a practicing attorney. “When we have a system where we’ve exonerated so many innocent men and women in this country, we need to take a harder look at how this system works.”
The legislation is designed to do that, as Raymond Santana, one of the Exonerated Five, said.
“This is stuff that we’ve been speaking about for years. To see it now coming to the forefront, where the spotlight has been put on it, it’s a blessing,” he said.
Another exoneree who wanted to attend the rally is also an attorney. Jeffrey Deskovic was instead at court, defending attempted murder convict André Brown.
Brown has served 22 years of a 40-year sentence for a shooting in 1999. For the past two years, his lawyers, Deskovic and lead attorney Oscar Michelen, have petitioned to get new evidence heard that could get their client’s conviction overturned.
On Wednesday, a judge began a three-day hearing in which witnesses who were overlooked in Brown’s initial case will now be heard.
Deskovic said there’s a link between the case and the proposed legislation.
The new bills would bolster legal representation; Deskovic said it would have made all the difference for Brown.
Brown was originally represented by Thomas Lee, who ended up getting in trouble with the law himself for his ties to the Bonanno Crime Family.
“If [Brown] would have received effective assistance at trial, he would not have been wrongly convicted,” Deskovic said in an interview after court on Wednesday. “His lawyer did not find key witnesses that his later defense counsel has found.”
The Brown hearings continue on Thursday and next Tuesday.
Meanwhile, the three bills meant to counter wrongful convictions go before both houses of the state legislature next month.