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On Wrongful Convictions: Texas Two-Steps Forward, New York One Back

A ruling in New York’s highest court will block those who plead guilty from asserting their innocence despite compelling evidence.

  • Bryan Furst
January 11, 2019

Why would someone plead guilty to a crime they did not commit?

Once a confound­ing ques­tion, we now know that this is a common occur­rence — and it leads to convic­tions in courts around the coun­try on a regu­lar basis.

Wrong­ful convic­tions are notori­ously diffi­cult to unwind. And it recently got a lot harder in New York. In People v. Tiger, the state’s highest court held that those who plead guilty can no longer chal­lenge their convic­tions unless they have DNA evid­ence to support their claim.

But guilty pleas are too common for such a narrow safety valve. The legis­lature should react and build in strong protec­tions for people forced by poverty or coer­cion into wrongly plead­ing guilty.

Tiger revolves around Nata­scha Tiger, a licensed nurse, who was bathing her disabled 10-year-old patient with a hand-held shower head when she noticed red peel­ing skin on the child’s leg. She noti­fied the parents, who imme­di­ately sought medical atten­tion. Before long, Ms. Tiger was crim­in­ally accused of assault and endan­ger­ing a child for allegedly burn­ing her patient during the bath. 

Ms. Tiger ulti­mately faced a choice famil­iar to millions of people in this coun­try: go to trial and risk being sent to prison for seven years or admit guilt and receive a reduced sentence. Ms. Tiger, already strug­gling to pay attor­ney fees, could not afford an expert witness to testify at trial so pled guilty on the advice of her attor­ney. She was sentenced to four months impris­on­ment, five years’ proba­tion, and the life­time of collat­eral consequences that come with a felony convic­tion.

Later, it came to light that the child’s injury was most likely caused by a routine medic­a­tion — prov­ing that Nata­scha was inno­cent. She went back to court and won an oppor­tun­ity for a new hear­ing. But her victory was short-lived. The New York Court of Appeals ruled that because Ms. Tiger previ­ously admit­ted guilt to the crime, she could not chal­lenge her convic­tion on the grounds that she was actu­ally inno­cent.

This general rule might seem reas­on­able until you explore some basic facts about our crim­inal justice system. For one, it’s a system built on guilty pleas. Mean­ing at least 97 percent of federal cases and 94 percent of state cases end in guilty pleas. And we know with certainty that many people who plead guilty did not commit the alleged crime. Accord­ing to the National Registry of Exon­er­a­tions, a signi­fic­ant propor­tion of over­turned convic­tions stem from false guilty pleas, and that ratio has grown along­side the justice system’s increased reli­ance on plea deals. From 2000 to 2009, nine percent of exonerees pled guilty to the crimes lead­ing to their convic­tion. From 2010–18 the percent­age more than tripled to 29 percent.

After Tiger, New York­ers who plead guilty only have one path­way left to assert their inno­cence — obtain­ing new DNA evid­ence. But the data suggests this does not go nearly far enough. Of the 270 exon­er­a­tions in New York since 1989, DNA only played a role in 43 cases. The remain­ing 227 cases repres­ent 2,004 years of wrong­ful incar­cer­a­tion. Further, DNA evid­ence is not as infal­lible as many think. In truth, the results are only as reli­able as the tech­ni­cians that find them.  

To be sure, there are reas­ons to limit chal­lenges to guilty pleas. The Tiger Court cited the preser­va­tion of judi­cial resources and the State’s interest in final­ity, to name two. These are import­ant consid­er­a­tions, but as Judge Rowan Wilson points out in his dissent in Tiger, “’con­ser­va­tion of judi­cial resources’ does not appear along­side ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happi­ness.’”

And other states have radic­ally expan­ded post-convic­tion chal­lenges, and the sky has not fallen. For example, Texas’s highest crim­inal court ruled 16 years ago that a claim of actual inno­cence was not barred by a guilty plea. Since 2010, Texas has had 249 exon­er­a­tions, more than double any other state. And here is the kicker: 80 percent of those people pled guilty. Harris County in partic­u­lar has made a commit­ment to remedy­ing and prevent­ing wrong­ful convic­tions, with 42 in 2015 alone. Yet it is sober­ing to think many of these exon­er­a­tions would have been impossible if Tiger was the law of the land.

New York should act before it falls further behind. Nata­scha Tiger’s case would be easy for the state to correct by amend­ing its post-convic­tion relief stat­ute: N.Y. Crim­inal Proced­ure Law § 440.10. In fact, this is over­due. For years New York trial courts have wrestled with whether and how to create an “actual inno­cence” remedy for people like Nata­scha. The Legis­lature could resolve the uncer­tainty ­­­— and clarify an ambigu­ous area of law — with a simple, tech­nical fix.

Block­ing people from assert­ing their inno­cence in the face of compel­ling evid­ence discred­its the justice system in the eyes of every New Yorker. There must be a safety valve for people who plead guilty to crimes they didn’t commit. It is now up to the Legis­lature to create one. 

(Image: CraigRJD/Getty)