Legislators took a “history-making” step this week as they gave final approval to legislation (HB 1323) that creates a one-of-a-kind legal path to exonerate the wrongfully convicted. Credit goes to Rep. Rick Glazier, D-Cumberland, for his hard work on the bill. The commission would be focused on examining questions of innocence, while the current criminal appeals process is geared toward ensuring fair trials. The commission would be made up of eight members, including a judge, prosecutor, victims’ advocate, defense lawyer and a sheriff, and the commission would employ a director to coordinate investigations.
After a formal inquiry, five of the eight commission members would have to find “sufficient evidence” of innocence to forward the claim to a three-judge panel. The judges would hold a hearing to consider evidence from both the prosecutor and the defendant. All three judges would have to find “clear and convincing evidence” to free a person. As part of a compromise devised by lawmakers, the commission during its first two years could not investigate claims from those who pleaded guilty, which is unfortunate, because innocent defendants sometimes plead guilty either because of mental illness or handicap, or pressure from prosecutors. After those two years, the commission could send such a claim to the three-judge panel only if all eight members agreed. The bill now awaits the Governor’s signature to become law.