Eric Kelley and Ralph Lee spent nearly a quarter of a century behind bars before being exonerated last April of murder and robbery convictions. Their story inspired a bill passed by the New Jersey Senate this week that could help others like them find justice and prevent future wrongful convictions.
In the wake of a 2017 report about the two men winning new trials after DNA evidence suggested a different person had killed a video-store clerk in 1993, Sens. Joseph Pennacchio (R-Morris) and Shirley Turner (D-Mercer) introduced a bill that would create the New Jersey Innocence Study and Review Commission. The Senate unanimously passed the measure (S-406) on Monday.
Under the bill, a nine-member commission would study and review all aspects of criminal cases involving wrongful conviction in New Jersey and recommend reforms to reduce the likelihood of mistaken verdicts being handed down in the future.
“Our innocence commission would address a wide variety of issues facing people who have been wrongfully convicted — from reintegrating back into society to getting the compensation they deserve,” Pennacchio said. “Innocent people should not spend a single day behind bars, but it happens all the time — even in New Jersey … These people shouldn’t have to wait a moment longer for justice.”
It’s unclear how many in New Jersey may have been convicted of crimes they did not commit. The website of The Last Resort Exoneration Project at Seton Hall University School of Law, which provides pro-bono legal and investigative services to wrongfully convicted people in New Jersey, estimates that as many as 300 people may currently be wrongfully locked up in state prisons.
Perjury, mistaken identification, inadequate defense
The National Registry of Exonerations, a project of three law schools including the University of Michigan, lists the names and stories of 37 people in New Jersey who have had their convictions set aside, with the oldest cases dating back to 1977. Perjury, mistaken identification, inadequate defense and official misconduct are among the reasons why these men and women were wrongly convicted. DNA played a role in overturning a third of the cases.
Nationally, more than 2,000 people have been exonerated following a wrongful conviction since 1989, according to the registry. The group estimates that there are tens of thousands of false convictions annually.
Following the release of Kelley and Lee, New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal announced the creation of a panel to be headed by former state Supreme Court Justice Virginia Long.
Its job is to determine whether Grewal should create two new statewide units: A “cold case unit” to attempt to solve old crimes using new technology and other investigative tools, and a “conviction review unit” to review claims of innocence by those convicted of serious crimes. If the panel recommends creating these units, it would also suggest how they should be structured and staffed. The panel’s recommendations will be implemented by a new Office of Public Integrity and Accountability unit that Grewal created three months ago.
But lawmakers say the commission they have proposed would serve a different, and broader, purpose and would be codified and not subject to the whims of a new attorney general or new administration coming in. It would be charged with producing a report within 18 months of its first meeting.
‘…one of the worst things that could happen’
Pennacchio said he is anxious for the Assembly to act on the bill — so far, A-341, the Assembly version, has not received a hearing in the lower house, where it has been referred to the Assembly Judiciary Committee.
Some New Jerseyans whose convictions have been set aside worked with lawmakers in crafting the bill and testified in favor of it in committee back in October.
“Being forced to plead guilty, knowing you’re innocent, is one of the worst things that could happen to an innocent person,” said Rodney Roberts, who was incarcerated for 18 years — after pleading guilty to a crime that gave him a seven-year sentence — due to a mistaken witness identification, before DNA evidence cleared him in 2014.
“It happens more than you think,” he said. “Then to find out later that, despite being exonerated, your guilty plea will keep you from getting compensation is like being punished a second time for a crime you didn’t commit.”
Roberts is seeking compensation for wrongful imprisonment in a federal civil rights lawsuit he has pending against Essex County, Newark and several individuals.
Michelle Feldman of the Innocence Project, a national group that works to exonerate the wrongly accused in New Jersey and across the country, called the legislation “a great step to examine the underlying causes of wrongful convictions in New Jersey and ways to prevent them in the future.”
She called for lawmakers to act on another bill, A1037/S1765, which would help those like Roberts who are currently barred from suing over wrongful imprisonment.
“We also hope that the NJ legislature will focus on helping the innocent rebuild their lives after exoneration,” Feldman said, adding that the legislation would “remove the current ban on state compensation for wrongfully convicted people who pleaded guilty and would provide compensation for additional years that an innocent person wrongly spent on parole or the sex offender registry.”
A to-do list for the new commission
Among the tasks the bill laid out for the new panel is to consider establishing a permanent panel before which a person, including those currently incarcerated, could request a review of their case when he or she believes there has been a wrongful conviction.
Other specific charges for the commission would be to:
“Nothing can return the time lost with loved ones or milestones missed when a wrongful conviction steals years from an innocent person’s life,” Turner said. “This legislation will help us identify how to prevent wrongful convictions and create an avenue to better address wrongful convictions when they do occur.”
‘Abject failure’ of criminal justice system
Lesley Risinger, founder and director of The Last Resort Exoneration Project at Seton Hall, supports the bill as “an important step” in tackling the problem of wrongful convictions.
“Conviction of the innocent is an abject failure of any criminal justice system,” she said. “We believe in a collaborative approach that should take into account the views of all who have participated in the exoneration of the innocent in New Jersey, as well as the views and experiences of the exonerated innocent themselves … We look forward to providing our insights on measures to alleviate this problem.”
“Rodney Roberts languished in prison for 18 years,” Pennacchio said. “This is a travesty of the highest magnitude. Policy changes like bail reform are meaningless, if we aren’t solving the systemic issues that allow innocent people to stay locked up … Now that our bill has passed the Senate, I hope that the Assembly will take up the measure immediately. If this isn’t a time sensitive piece of legislation, I don’t know what is.”