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
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
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
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.