Sunday, August 29, 2004
Editorial: Evidence rules still hinder justice in Virginia
The list of innocent inmates grows, but appeals remain unfairly restricted.
From the RoundTable blog
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And so far, it is not the flood of frivolous cases predicted by opponents. Instead, it is a fear that should truly matter to Virginians who desire a just judicial system: New evidence, usually DNA, has proved a series of inmates innocent under the narrow reforms of the last few years.
That strongly suggests others may be wrongly imprisoned. But the new rules remain so harshly restrictive that innocent people inevitably will still be left rotting in prison.
In the recent case of Arthur Lee Whitfield, luck and good will were as necessary as legal reform. He served 23 years for two Norfolk rapes, taking a plea deal in the second, before he was able to request tests on DNA evidence. They were done quickly, thanks to a cooperative prosecutor. They couldn't have been done at all if a now-deceased worker at the state crime lab had not habitually, and contrary to practice, saved biological evidence.
Though the state has freed two other people, Virginia has not tested its remaining store of material to see who else might be cleared.
Luck and good will should not be factors in obtaining justice. Yet under the reforms, other innocent inmates may need both.
New inequities replaced the patently unfair 21-day rule. Convicts get only one chance to have a three-judge panel decide whether their evidence justifies an appeal. Those who pleaded guilty or took Alford pleas, even in deals with prosecutors, need not apply. The panel must agree the evidence was unknown or unattainable at trial - which may exclude proof a negligent lawyer simply failed to pursue - and so compelling it would sway a judge or jury.
The wrongly convicted still face a far too daunting barrier to justice. All Virginia has done is remove a few bricks.