When someone is wrongfully convicted, the judicial system failed. The shockwave from a botched case is endless. The impact reaches everyone involved: prosecutor, defense lawyer, judge, corrections officials, victim, family and friends of the accused, friends and family of the victim, and the public at large. But, most importantly, those erroneously convicted are hit the hardest. Sadly, thousands of American citizens feel that pain every year.
Recently, I completed a week-long-seminar-class on wrongful convictions at Mitchell Hamline School of Law in St. Paul, Minnesota. This seminar-style class examined the ongoing issues with wrongful convictions and the troubling procedural issues that arise.
Discovering a Wrongful Conviction
Imagine spending twenty-two years in prison for the murder of your seven children, a crime you did not commit. That is precisely what happened to James Richardson, who was charged and wrongfully convicted of poisoning his children. No physical evidence tied Mr. Richardson to the gruesome crime, and another person even admitted to the crime years after the conviction. Regardless, it took vigorous work by attorney Mark Lane to get this unjust conviction lifted after being imposed twenty-two years prior.
One way wrongful convictions are discovered is through finding new evidence. Every state currently permits at least some form of post-trial relief on the basis of newly discovered evidence. However, the ability to unearth such evidence is generally extremely difficult for litigants. There are also significant road blocks in play – stringent statutes of limitations, limited access to discovery, and high legal and evidentiary thresholds.
In Minnesota, a defendant can challenge a ruling based on newly discovered evidence within fifteen days of the verdict being rendered. One limiting factor is newly discovered evidence must be material. Additionally, it would not have been found if reasonable diligence was used before and during trial. The main limitation is clearly found in the timeline which this new evidence is supposed to be found and admitted under. Fifteen days is a very short time frame to expect or impose the ability for new evidence to come to light.
Moving forward, the materiality standard should be lifted. Instead, the any tendency standard from Rule 401 of the Federal Rules of Evidence should be the new standard. Furthermore, the fifteen-day timeline should also be extended to allow for actual discovery of new evidence to occur. These repairs will alleviate some of the current issues occurring in wrongful convictions within Minnesota. While these are just two examples of ways wrongful convictions can be cured, it is clear that a bigger reform of the judicial system is quite necessary in order to eradicate wrongful convictions altogether.
Alec Rolain is a law clerk at Ambrose Law Firm, PLLC. He is about to start his 3L year at Mitchell Hamline School of Law in St. Paul. Prior to law school, Alec attended St. Mary’s University of Minnesota in Winona where he played baseball and made the MIAC all-sportsmanship team. Criminal Defense Attorney Woodbury MN; Appeals Attorney Woodbury; and Woodbury Criminal Justice Lawyer.