Wednesday, March 11, 2015

John Grisham: Bill would hurt ability of wrongly convicted to prove innocence in Oklahoma

The following opinion by John Grisham was published by News OK on March 6, 2015.

A bill in the Oklahoma House could seriously hinder the ability of the wrongfully convicted to prove innocence, a reality that could allow the perpetrators of crime to continue to inflict harm on Oklahomans while the wrong person is incarcerated.

House Bill 1045 by Rep. Scott Biggs, R-Chickasha, would permit inmates to file a single petition in state court challenging their conviction, and would require the petition to be filed within two years from the date of sentencing. If this bill were to become law, these arbitrary limits could result in thousands of inmates, including the innocent, being left with no legal avenue to challenge their convictions.

Oklahoma’s current post-conviction relief law is straightforward. There is no time limit for filing post-conviction relief petitions, nor is there a cap on the number that can be filed in state court. Since 1993, Oklahoma has seen 28 exonerations, among them Ron Williamson, who was wrongfully convicted of capital murder. Williamson was five days away from execution and his petition for post-conviction relief had been denied by two Oklahoma state courts. A late appeal to a federal court stopped Williamson’s execution after the court concluded that he was denied a fair trial.

As Oklahoma prosecutors prepared to retry Williamson, more than 16 years after the crime occurred, Williamson and his co-defendant, Dennis Fritz, were able to prove their innocence through DNA evidence that didn’t exist at the time of their original trials.

Williamson’s trial was replete with errors that nearly cost him his life. Post-conviction proceedings are sometimes the only opportunity courts have to correct trial-level mistakes — mistakes that only become apparent long after the original trial has come to a close. These errors — literally matters of life and death — may take much longer than two years to surface, and may take more than one petition to correct.

Williamson was one of the lucky ones; his case involved DNA evidence and was overturned in federal court. While HB 1045 would not apply to someone seeking to prove innocence through DNA evidence, DNA evidence alone often does not expose wrongful convictions. In 2014, there were 126 exonerations, a national record, but only 22 involved DNA evidence. In Oklahoma, 17 of the state’s exonerations have not involved DNA evidence.

Just as chilling is the possibility that, while an innocent person is in prison, the real perpetrator could remain free and a threat to public safety. In the 11 Oklahoma exonerations that involved DNA evidence, a real perpetrator was identified in seven of those cases. Because police were focused on the wrong person or persons, and because the wrong person was convicted of those crimes, five of these actual perpetrators were able to go on to commit five rapes and two other violent crimes.
HB 1045 would erect an unnecessary barrier to proving innocence — a feat that is already extremely difficult. It also could pose a serious threat to public safety by preventing the innocent from exposing the truly guilty. Let’s not mess with post-conviction relief in Oklahoma. There’s no need to fix something that isn’t broken.

Grisham has authored numerous works of fiction and nonfiction including “The Innocent Man,” about the convictions of Williamson and Fritz. He is a former criminal defense lawyer and a member of the Innocence Project board of directors. HB 1045 was approved by the House and sent to the Senate for consideration.

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