THERMOPOLIS — Lawmakers and groups that work to exonerate wrongly convicted people clashed with the Wyoming Attorney General’s office Friday over legislation that would grant new trials to offenders when fresh, non-DNA evidence surfaces.
A bill in the 2017 legislative session aimed to create a new process that innocence groups said would make it easier for someone who was wrongly convicted to get a new trial. It passed the House unanimously. But it failed in a Senate committee when a representative from the Attorney General’s office objected to it.
The Joint Judiciary Committee, which met in Thermopolis, is trying to resurrect the bill in a way that satisfies both sides. The committee asked a representative from the Attorney General to work with Laramie Rep. Charles Pelkey, the sponsor of the 2017 bill, and members of innocence groups to hammer out a compromise before its next meeting in early June. Lawmakers hope they can introduce the bill again in next year’s session – and have it pass.
Wyoming has one of the most stringent laws in the United States when new non-DNA evidence comes to light, Michelle Feldman of the New York-based Innocence Project told members of the Joint Judiciary Committee on Friday in Thermopolis.
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Defendants have only two years to ask a judge for a new trial. But that isn’t a reasonable amount of time, Feldman said, because attorneys working for innocence groups can spend a decade researching a case, interviewing witnesses and poring over court documents before deciding whether they believe someone was wrongly convicted.
Pelkey’s bill lifted the time restriction and specified legal standards for evidence that a judge can consider when reviewing a case and deciding whether to grant a new trial.
But Chief Deputy Wyoming Attorney General John Knepper said the bill had problems. He said that the measure could lead to abuse by convicts who are actually guilty, with them incessantly requesting new trials and wasting judges’ time.
Knepper said there are avenues people can take for exoneration that don’t require a new law.
People who are no longer in prison can seek to expunge the crime from their records. The governor can pardon innocent people. People can request a new trial based on inadequate legal representation. And they can request federal court review actions in a state court, Knepper said.
And there is the issue of plea bargains, Knepper said. When people plead guilty to crimes, they usually don’t have trials. The result of that is there are few court transcripts of witnesses, police and others testifying in the original trial for a judge to review when weighing whether to order a new trial, he said. He said that a person’s credibility can be at stake if they originally say they’re guilty in a plea deal, then recant later.
“Don’t plead guilty if you’re innocent,” he said. “That’s what you should do.”
But Feldman, of the Innocence Project, disputed a number of Knepper’s assertions.
“I’m only aware of one pardon the governor has given, so I don’t know if that’s a viable avenue,” she said.
Lawmakers don’t have to worry about prisoners inundating judges with requests for a new trial since the bar is high as to what constitutes new evidence, she said.
The Wyoming bill that failed earlier this year is similar to one enacted nine years ago in Utah, Feldman said. There have been only 12 petitions for new trials since 2008, she said.
Committee member Sen. Liisa Anselmi-Dalton also challenged Knepper.
When someone is innocent, “they don’t want to have to jump through hoops to expunge their record,” the Rock Springs Democrat said. “They don’t have to jump through hoops hoping the governor will give them a pardon.”
She told Knepper that a new trial would be based on new evidence, not on poor legal representation.
“They have to have material, new evidence,” said Anselmi-Dalton, who has a law degree from Duke University. “It’s a pretty high standard.”
She said innocent people just want their lives back.
“Why are we torturing them?” she asked Knepper.
“I don’t believe in torturing anyone,” Knepper said.
Pelkey, the Laramie Democrat who sponsored the bill that passed the House, also disagreed with Knepper’s assertions.
“Listening to John, it’s like someone trying to imagine worst-case scenarios, and virtually every incarnation of a bad outcome of a bill,” he said. “This bill was well-considered by this committee before I introduced it last session.”
Knepper said there are compromises that can be made, such as no longer requiring people to send requests for new trials by certified mail when new evidence arises.
Knepper said the Attorney General’s Office must track myriad bills in the Legislature. Attorneys who work in the office are instructed not to get involved in most of them or attend committee meetings where they are vetted. Lawmakers usually ask the attorneys their opinion on the legislation, and an offhand comment becomes construed as the official opinion of Attorney General Peter Michael or Gov. Matt Mead, who appoints the attorney general.
“We want to be very careful that we speak with one voice,” he said.
Montana resident Troy Willoughby is the last person who was exonerated after non-DNA evidence came to light. Willoughby was convicted in 2010 in the 1984 killing of Lisa Ehlers in Sublette County. He served three years before being cleared of the murder. After Willoughby’s first trial, a police report surfaced showing officers had met with him about a different matter around the time Ehlers was killed. The police report was not revealed at his original trial.
More recently, Andrew Johnson of Cheyenne was released from prison after being exonerated of sexual assault and aggravated burglary convictions. On Monday, Johnson’s attorney filed suit against the city of Cheyenne, claiming its officers withheld evidence that led to his conviction and failed to properly investigate the case.
But Johnson’s case would not apply to the bill because he was exonerated based on DNA evidence.
Follow political reporter Laura Hancock on Twitter @laurahancock