A panel of judges, prosecutors and lawmakers has proposed eliminating Virginia’s toughest-in-the-nation time limit for convicted criminals to submit new evidence of innocence, the Washington Post reports. The committee recommended allowing a court to exonerate a wrongly convicted felon any time after a trial.
The proposal from a panel of the Virginia State Crime Commission must be considered by the state’s General Assembly. It is a major victory for defense lawyers and others who have long argued that Virginia convicts who claim innocence should have a day in court. “We have constructed, for the first time in Virginia’s history, a model of relief for a person who is guilty of nothing, who is innocent,” Steven Benjamin, a Richmond defense lawyer.
Virginia’s deadline for allowing nonscientific evidence — 21 days after sentencing — has come under increasing scrutiny as wrongly convicted inmates in Virginia and across the country have been exonerated. A 2001 law gave inmates the right to ask for DNA tests at any time, and a constitutional amendment approved last year allows wrongly convicted felons to present scientific evidence to the Virginia Supreme Court and seek a “writ of actual innocence.” The “21 Day Rule Task Force” recommended expanding a felon’s right, so that any new evidence — such as fingerprints, recanted testimony or new witnesses — could be considered by the court at any time. The recommendation sets out strict standards, including a requirement that the evidence wasn’t available during trial. Ultimately, to exonerate an inmate, the court would have to determine that “no rational trier of fact could have found proof of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.”
Virginia Court of Appeals Chief Judge Johanna L. Fitzpatrick, a task force member, said the tough requirements would protect the court from frivolous claims. Christopher Amolsch, an Alexandria defense lawyer, said he’s concerned that the requirements are so stringent that felons with legitimate claims wouldn’t be able to meet them.