- Last Resort Exoneration Project

Seton Hall Law's Director of Last Resort Exoneration Project Helps Wrongfully Convicted

Exonerated Prisoners & Advocates Show Support for “The New Jersey Innocence Study and Review Commission”

The Senate Judiciary Committee has passed bipartisan legislation sponsored by Senator Joe Pennacchio and Senator Shirley Turner to create a commission that would develop reforms and aid those who have been wrongfully convicted in New Jersey. At the Oct. 29th hearing, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Nick Scutari announced that he has agreed to co-sponsor the bill. 

Senators Pennacchio and Turner introduced S-406 more than a year ago, following  reports of wrongful conviction cases in New Jersey.

Following Senator Pennacchio’s October 2017 press conferencecalling for action on the bill, Attorney General Grewal announced a similar effort. Pennacchio noted that there is still a need for legislation.

“We cannot permanently address the crisis of wrongful conviction in New Jersey without codifying an innocence commission into law. If the Legislature doesn’t act, the next administration could easily discontinue Attorney General Grewal’s noble work,”  Senator Pennacchio (R-26) said. “We have heard from a number of exonerees, like AJ Nash, who told us that if this pathway to justice had existed, he would not have spent years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit.

Rodney Roberts languished in prison for 17 years. AJ Nash was there for 10. 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,” Pennacchio added. “Our search for justice should know no bounds.”

Rodney Roberts was one of the exonerees who came to the Oct. 29th Senate Judiciary Committee Hearing to show his support for S-406. Roberts was exonerated by DNA evidence in 2014, after spending nearly two decades in prison.

“Being forced to plead guilty, knowing you’re innocent, is one of the worst things that could happen to an innocent person,” exoneree Rodney Roberts said. “But it happens more than you think. 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.”

“A wrongful conviction can steal years from an innocent person’s life, nothing can return the time lost with loved ones or family milestones missed,” Senator Turner (D-15) said. “Time in prison not only impacts an individual’s personal life, but also their potential lifetime earnings and financial security for themselves and their families.

Nationwide, more than 2,000 wrongfully convicted persons have been exonerated since 1989, according to the National Registry on Exonerations. However, the Registry estimates that there are tens of thousands of false convictions annually, with many more piling up over time.

About Pennacchio/Turner’s S-406: “The New Jersey Innocence Study and Review Commission”

The “New Jersey Innocence Study and Review Commission,” as established by S-406, would review all aspects of criminal cases involving wrongful conviction in New Jersey and recommend reforms to reduce the likelihood of wrongful conviction occurring in the future.

Under S-406, the commission must consider a specific recommendation for establishing a permanent panel before which a person who believes they have been the victim of a wrongful conviction could request a review of their own conviction, including those that are currently incarcerated.

- The commission’s responsibilities would also include:

- Identifying the main causes of wrongful conviction and studying existing research on these causes;

- Recommending best practices to appropriate constituencies

- Examining the existing system of restitution to compensate wrongfully convicted persons

- Studying successful programs that assist with reintegration back into society following release

S-406 has received the support of a number of advocates, including Lesley Risinger, Director 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. Risinger was present at the committee hearing to support the bill.

“Conviction of the innocent is an abject failure of any criminal justice system,” Risinger said. “Creating the New Jersey Innocence Study and Review Commission would be an important step in addressing this problem. 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. If this bill passes, we will of course stand ready to assist the commission as they move forward to study the ways in which our criminal justice system fails the innocent, both before and after conviction, and we look forward to providing our insights on measures to alleviate this problem.”

Safeer Z. Quraishi, administrative director of the NAACP New Jersey State Conference, was also present at the committee hearing to support S-406.

“The New Jersey State Conference of the NAACP is in full support of Senate Bill 406 which looks to create the New Jersey Innocence Study and Review Commission,” Quraishi said. “It is obvious that nobody should feel the devastating effects of incarceration if they did not commit the crime. We are looking forward to seeing the recommendations made by the Commission to reduce wrongful incarceration in New Jersey.”

“This legislation will help us identify how to prevent wrongful convictions and create a pathway for addressing them as soon as possible when they are believed to have happened,” Senator Turner added. “We must do everything in our power to ensure those who have been wrongfully convicted are given justice, restorations, and a pathway to successful reentry.”

“I am grateful to the exoneeres, the advocates, and my colleagues on both sides of the aisle for supporting our legislation,” Senator Pennacchio added. “I hope our bill will continue to advance quickly. If this isn’t an example of a time-sensitive piece of legislation, I don’t know what is. Let’s get this done now.”

Photo Credit:
From left: Exoneree Anthony Ways, Sen. Joe Pennacchio, Exoneree Jean Dorval, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Nick Scutari, Exoneree Rodney Roberts, and advocate Lesley Risinger. All were present for the Oct. 29 committee passage of S-406, which will bring justice to the wrongfully convicted.


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