Tuesday, October 1, 2002
Davis Signs Bill Providing Habeas-Like Relief to Wrongfully Convicted
By a MetNews Staff Writer
Defendants who have been wrongfully convicted in California and completed their prison terms will for the first time be able to go to court to get the judgments vacated, under a bill signed Sunday by Gov. Gray Davis.
Senate Bill 1391 answers complaints from defense lawyers and civil libertarians who argued that defendants who had served time had no chance to clear their records even if they could show police lied or prosecutors committed misconduct to get them convicted.
In another victory for defendants, the bill also gives habeas corpus petitioners who are fighting life and death sentences a way to get discovery materials from prosecutors when they can’t get it from the original defense lawyer.
The problem of clearing the records of the wrongfully convicted was highlighted by the Los Angeles Police Department’s Rampart corruption crisis, in which Officer Rafael Perez admitted falsifying evidence and lying on the stand and named former colleagues who had done the same. After Perez’s admissions and subsequent probes, hundreds of defendants claimed they were wrongfully convicted based on fabricated testimony by Perez and other now-tainted officers.
But while defendants still serving their sentences could seek exoneration and release by petitioning for writs of habeas corpus or coram nobis, no such relief was available to those whose prison terms were over. Those defendants, although out of prison and able to sue the city for damages, still carried the stigma of being convicted felons and were subject to deportation and denial of federal housing, employment, educational grants and other benefits.
That’s the position in which Los Angeles defendant Carlos Francisco Mendez found himself after serving a three-year sentence on drug charges based on preliminary hearing testimony by LAPD Officer David Mack—-Perez’s former partner.
Mack was later discredited and was himself sent to prison on corruption charges. But that did Mendez no good. In March 2001, this district’s Court of Appeal declined to create an “equitable remedy” for Mendez as an analog to habeas corpus or coram nobis procedures.
In her opinion for Div. One, Justice Miriam Vogel said Mendez’s remedy was to apply to the governor for a pardon.
Under the new provisions, defendants will have one year from the date of discovery of the governmental misconduct to produce evidence and proof in the same manner as for a writ of habeas corpus.
“As governor, I strongly support the hardworking men and women of law enforcement,” Davis said in his signing message. “However, nobody is above the law, and in rare cases where governmental officials deceive the courts, there must be appropriate remedies. This measure will serve the interests of justice.”
SB 1391 was authored by Democratic state Sen. John Burton of San Francisco and backed by Los Angeles Public Defender Michael Judge.
Judge, who runs the largest public defense agency in the state, said screening of 14,000 of his clients’ cases resulted in 45 hearings in a Los Angeles Superior Court Rampart review process. Of those, he said, 85 percent of the convicted defendants ended up being cleared.
The same screening identified 22 such cases in which former defendants believe they could be cleared, Judge said, if only they could get a hearing. Now, he said yesterday, they can.
“This eliminates a quirk in the law that prohibited people wrongfully convicted in court to demonstrate their innocence,” Judge said.
He said he was pleased with the outcome not just because of what it will do for some of his clients, but because of what it shows about how a government with checks and balances and multiple branches can work.
“This may sound corny,” Judge said, “but I am pleased that our system of government worked to redress a grievance.”
The portion of the bill dealing with discovery permits defendants to go to law enforcement agencies and prosecutors to seek materials they would have had a right to see at trial time had they been sentenced to death or life without parole.
But the defendants first must make a showing that they tried unsuccessfully to get the same materials from their trial lawyers.
Trial lawyers who fought losing battles for their clients often cannot locate the files years later when a habeas lawyer is on the case, and the state currently has no obligation to turn over the materials absent a court order.
Such orders are sometimes issued, but defense experts argued that the procedure consumed a lot of time and expense while the parties litigated the obligation to turn over the prosecution records.
Backers of the bill also noted that the trial lawyer has little incentive to locate and turn over the original file when the new attorney may be making a case that the original defense was incompetent.
Copyright 2002, Metropolitan News Company