New Calif. laws seek to overturn, prevent wrongful convictions

One law will allow prisoners to challenge their convictions with new evidence that would have changed the outcome of their trials


By Bob Egelko
San Francisco Chronicle

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — There’s new evidence that the climate on crime and punishment is changing in California: a handful of bills signed by Gov. Jerry Brown that will make it easier to overturn, or prevent, wrongful convictions.

One law, signed by Brown last week, will allow prisoners to challenge their convictions with new evidence that, more likely than not, would have changed the outcome of their trials, easing the current standard that requires near-certain proof of innocence. The law takes effect next year. Another measure allows immigrants facing deportation for criminal convictions to offer newly discovered evidence that they were wrongfully convicted.

A third bill, whose supporters included the California Police Chiefs Association, will require police to record all interrogations of murder suspects, recordings that jurors can use to decide whether confessions were voluntary or coerced. A decade ago, lawmakers twice approved legislation requiring recording of interrogations in all violent felony cases, but Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed both measures.

A more significant test of public attitudes awaits in November, when voters will consider a repeal of California’s death penalty — similar to an initiative that was narrowly defeated in 2012 — and a measure backed by Brown that would overhaul state sentencing laws and allow thousands of prisoners to apply for early parole. But the newly signed laws suggest a turnabout in a state that had been among the nation’s leaders in tough sentencing practices that swelled the prison system.

The measures are “a step in the right direction,” said former state Attorney General John Van de Kamp, who served as chairman of the state Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice in the mid-2000s. “Progress moves slowly sometimes.”

The commission, whose members included prosecutors, defense lawyers and police, recommended a series of changes in California criminal laws from 2006 through 2008, including recording of police interrogations and narrowing or abolishing the death penalty, but most were rejected by legislators or vetoed by Schwarzenegger. One proposal, to require testimony by jailhouse informants to be backed up by independent evidence, was vetoed twice by Schwarzenegger but was signed by Brown in 2011.

“For nonviolent offenders and drug cases, there’s a much different view than there was 20 years ago,” said Van de Kamp, who served as attorney general from 1983 to 1991.

He might have said 40 years ago, when lawmakers and voters started tightening the screws on the criminal justice system. A bill signed by Brown in 1976 required convicted felons to serve fixed terms prescribed by law, and was followed by a succession of measures mandating prison for certain crimes, increasing terms for gun use, gang affiliation and other factors, and requiring sentences of 25 years to life for felons with two previous serious or violent convictions — the first-in-the-nation “three strikes” law approved by both legislators and voters in 1994.

Other prosecution-sponsored ballot measures, labeled victims’-rights initiatives, allowed use of evidence from some police searches and interrogations that had been ruled illegal under state law. The prosecutor-backed voter removal of Chief Justice Rose Bird and two state Supreme Court colleagues in 1986 helped to install a conservative majority that rarely reversed convictions or death sentences.

By 2009, the state prison population had reached 175,000, seven times its total three decades earlier. At that point, a federal court panel ordered a reduction of 40,000 to ease overcrowding that the court blamed for shoddy prison health care.

In response, Brown, back for his second stint as governor, won passage of a law sending low-level felons to county jail instead of state prison. But the state has been able to comply with the order only because voters, for the first time, approved ballot measures shortening sentences — one narrowing the three-strikes law, and another reducing some drug crimes and minor thefts from felonies to misdemeanors.

“I think there is an opening today for criminal justice reforms that push back on the punitive swing of the last couple of decades,” said David Sklansky, a Stanford law professor, former federal prosecutor and co-director of the law school’s Criminal Justice Center.

Lucy Salcido Carter, policy director of the Northern California Innocence Project at Santa Clara University, said the public has also become more receptive to claims of wrongful convictions, thanks in part to video footage of questionable police conduct.

“I think it’s disturbing for people to think about innocent people serving time in prison, and it crosses party lines,“ said Carter, whose organization backed the three bills signed by Brown.

They are:

•SB1134 by Sens. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, and Joel Anderson, R-San Diego. Passed without a dissenting vote, it allows convicts who offer new evidence of possible innocence, after losing their initial appeal, to get a hearing if the evidence probably would have led to acquittal. The previous law required a showing of almost certain acquittal.

•AB813 by Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, D-San Diego. It allows an immigrant who has pleaded guilty to a crime, and served his or her sentence, to offer new evidence of innocence that could spare the immigrant from deportation.

•SB1139 by Sens. Steve Glazer, D-Orinda, and Ed Hernandez, D-West Covina (Los Angeles County). It requires police to record interrogations of all murder suspects, expanding the current law that applies only to juvenile murder suspects.

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