Scales of justice

A bill introduced for the upcoming legislative session would make it easier for wrongfully convicted people to present evidence in hopes of exoneration. A similar bill that would have relaxed restrictions on how wrongly convicted people could seek to have their convictions overturned failed in the face of opposition from the Wyoming Attorney General’s office last spring.

This time, however, the attorney general is on board.

The legislation proposed by the Joint Judiciary Committee will be heard in a House committee when the Legislature convenes in 2018 for its budget session.

In Wyoming, people convicted of crimes have a two-year window in which they can present non-DNA evidence in an effort to have their conviction overturned.

After that time period, the only evidence they can introduce to fight their conviction is DNA evidence.

If the new bill passes into law, that two-year window will be abolished.

The time limit is problematic, said Michelle Feldman of the Innocence Project, a nonprofit that provides legal help to wrongfully convicted people and seeks to reform laws nationwide to make the path to exoneration easier for innocent people.

Wrongful conviction cases usually take far more than two years to assemble, said Feldman, who worked on the bill. She cited the case of DeMarlo Berry, a Las Vegas man who was exonerated by non-DNA evidence two decades after being convicted for murder.

To overturn a wrongful conviction, lawyers have to assemble a puzzle of newly discovered evidence, Feldman said.

“It’s rarely that there’s a smoking gun,” she said.

The bill was written by a coalition of interested parties — including representatives of the Attorney General — in the office of Rep. Charles Pelkey, D-Laramie, who wrote last session’s iteration of the bill.

The 2017 bill passed the House unanimously. But it failed in a Senate committee under opposition from a representative from the attorney general’s office who said the bill could be abused by guilty people and waste judges’ time.

After the discussion, Pelkey was approached by a representative of the Attorney General’s office, he said. The representative told Pelkey the attorney general wasn’t opposed to the concept but didn’t like the way the bill was structured.

The judiciary committee, which met in Thermopolis in April, began resurrecting the bill shortly after it failed in the Senate committee. The judiciary committee asked an attorney general’s representative to work with Pelkey and members of innocence groups to come to a compromise.

So over the course of a sweltering summer day, Pelkey packed representatives from the Wyoming Trial Lawyer’s Association, the attorney general’s staff and the Innocence Project into his office and worked out the bill’s language, Pelkey said.

The bill draws heavily upon 2008 Utah legislation, which Pelkey said has not been prone to abuse in the past nine years.

Although last year’s bill would have cleared the way for convicted people to ask for a new trial, the new bill would allow them to ask the court directly to declare them innocent.

At the committee’s November meeting in Wheatland, representatives from the offices of the attorney general, the state public defender and the Sheridan County prosecuting attorney as well as the Rocky Mountain Innocence Project spoke in favor of the legislation.

Chief Deputy Attorney General John Knepper spoke in favor of the legislation before the judiciary committee in November but was unavailable to comment on Wednesday. Tina Olson, who spoke in favor of the bill on behalf of State Public Defender’s office in November, also could not be reached for comment on Wednesday.

Follow crime reporter Shane Sanderson on Twitter @shanersanderson

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Shane Sanderson is a Star-Tribune reporter who primarily covers criminal justice. Sanderson is a proud University of Missouri graduate. Lately, he’s been reading Cormac McCarthy and cooking Italian food. He writes about his own life in his free time.

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