RICHMOND – Wrongly convicted felons could have an easier pathway to proving their innocence thanks to passage of a bill amending Virginia’s “21-day rule.”
The current rule says that 21 days after a conviction, the decision is final regardless of any evidence that becomes available. House Bill 1432 would make it easier for defendants to present new evidence to prove their innocence, even beyond the three-week window.
The Senate voted 37-2 Thursday in favor of HB 1432, which would amend the state’s Writ of Actual Innocence law. The measure, introduced by Del. David Albo (R-Springfield) passed unanimously in the House earlier this month. It now goes to Gov. Bob McDonnell’s desk for his signature.
Under Virginia’s current law, only an appellate court can consider new evidence of innocence 21 days after a conviction.
In a news release, Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli — a long-time proponent of the bill — said, “Today, we are one step closer to ensuring that our justice system works as smoothly and clearly as possible, including the recognition that when a mistake has occurred, a meaningful judicial remedy should be available.”
Cuccinelli said the legislation does two important things:
• It changes the standard a defendant must satisfy to be exonerated. Cuccinelli said the current law is so stringent that even people who are innocent may not be able to get relief.
• The bill allows the attorney general to provide the court with evidence of innocence. The existing law says the attorney general can present only evidence of guilt.
Peter Neufeld, co-director of the Innocence Project, has worked to overturn the 21-day rule. The New York City-based legal organization helps exonerate wrongly convicted people through DNA evidence.
Neufeld recently spoke at a Black History Month Lecture at Virginia Commonwealth University called “Justice for All.” Neufeld explained during the lecture that it is difficult to prove someone’s innocence under Virginia’s 21-day rule.
“If you were convicted of murder and on the 22nd day, the deceased came walking into town — OK, no murder. You couldn’t go back into a court to get exonerated. Your only remedy would be to go to the governor and seek a pardon,” Neufeld said.
According to the Innocence Project’s website, 292 people have been exonerated by DNA testing since the organization was founded in 1992.