It’s time to fix New York’s bad law
BY ERIC SCHNEIDERMAN
For 18 years, Fernando Bermudez was locked up in state prison — until a judge overturned his murder conviction. Once freed, he did what you or I would have done: sought financial relief to give him a small measure of justice and help get his life back together.
Unfortunately, because of a technicality in state law, he can’t even bring a case.
Bermudez and others like him deserve their day in court. That is why I have proposed the Unjust Imprisonment Act — legislation to reform state laws that make it harder for people who were wrongfully convicted to recover financial relief.
The statute barring Bermudez’s lawsuit is part of the Court of Claims Act. When someone makes a claim against the state, that person must legally verify that the facts in the claim are true. It’s fundamentally a technical matter, and in most cases, an attorney can verify the claim. But for people seeking relief for unjust conviction and imprisonment like Bermudez, the verification must be signed personally.
He did not do that; his lawyer did. So, because his claim did not comply with this strict and highly technical requirement, my office must challenge his case in court.
From every perspective — moral, personal and legal — I find this obligation troubling and at odds with my office’s fundamental mission of seeking justice for all.
The Unjust Imprisonment Act includes a critical, simple reform — amending the law to let people like Bermudez fix their attorneys’ mistakes, so their cases can be decided on the merits. Current state law also stops other people who have been exonerated, or have had their convictions vacated or the charges dropped, from seeking damages.
Since 1991, according to the Innocence Project, 27 people had their convictions overturned because of DNA evidence in New York State — and 10 of them had also falsely confessed to crimes they didn’t commit.
This is not uncommon: The Innocence Project and the National Registry of Exonerations of the University of Michigan Law School and Northwestern University’s School of Law report that 37% of those whose convictions were overturned through DNA evidence in New York had made a false confession or incriminating statement. Many of these individuals could be barred from obtaining financial relief.
People plead guilty or admit to crimes they didn’t commit for various reasons. Certain interrogation procedures produce high rates of false confessions. Some defendants become convinced that taking a plea would avoid a much worse sentence after a trial — something we’ve all seen play out on “Law & Order” — in a criminal justice system where many convictions are obtained through plea deals rather than trials. Some defendants are simply too young to know better.
But under state law, only someone who “did not by his own conduct cause or bring about his conviction” may sue for damages, even after a court determines he or she was wrongfully convicted. Someone who pleaded guilty or confessed cannot pursue a claim — unless he or she can prove the confession, admission or plea was the result of coercion or duress.
A statute that lets some wrongfully convicted individuals seek restitution but denies that right to others is an unjust and unequal application of the law. We must fix this fundamentally flawed, outdated statute.
The measures I am proposing in the Unjust Imprisonment Act represent long overdue justice for people who have been doubly victimized by New York State — first, by being wrongfully locked up, then by being denied the right to seek compensation for years spent away from families, careers destroyed, income lost.
Just as we demand that people take responsibility for their actions, we as a society must take responsibility for fighting injustice. These people paid a debt they didn’t owe; New York must make good on the debt we owe them.
Schneiderman is attorney general of New York
Originally published by the Daily News