Wednesday, April 24, 2002
Panel Approves Bill to Provide Relief to Wrongly Convicted Defendants
By ROBERT GREENE, Staff Writer
A convicted defendant who claims to have been wrongfully convicted based on false testimony, but is no longer in custody or on probation or parole, would for the first time be able to seek exoneration in a court hearing under a bill approved yesterday by the state Senate Public Safety Committee.
The 4-2 vote on Senate Bill 1391 was a victory for Los Angeles Public Defender Michael Judge, who began pressing for the legislation in the wake of the Rampart corruption scandal in which police officers were found to have lied on the stand to secure convictions.
Defendants in custody currently may seek habeas corpus or coram nobis relief upon learning that officers who testified against them have a track record of lying or committing other misconduct in other cases. Dozens of such defendants have been released following Rampart reviews, and Judge said screening of 14,000 of his clients’ cases resulted in 45 hearings.
Of those, he said, 85 percent of the convicted defendants ended up being cleared.
But at present, no relief is available to defendants whose sentences have run and whose cases are now closed. With no legal way to scrap the allegedly wrongful conviction, Judge said, they are faced with deportation or can be denied federal housing, employment, educational grants and other benefits.
Judge said the screening process identified 22 such cases in which former defendants believe they could be cleared, if only they could get a hearing. They cannot, because courts have ruled they lack jurisdiction to grant post-conviction relief where there is no longer custody, probation or parole.
“The only difference between them and [those who can file habeas petitions] is that in this case the misconduct of the police was concealed long enough ago that there is now nothing that can be done,” Judge said. “This [bill] puts them in the same position as people who were given the chance to find exculpatory evidence before their sentences ran.”
Judge added that his review shows there would be no onslaught of petitions for post-conviction relief if the bill passes. But he also noted that in each of the cases in which a wrongful conviction was alleged, the only witness testimony came from police officers.
The bill would grant courts jurisdiction to entertain motions to set aside a judgment on the same showing that defendants currently make in habeas corpus and coram nobis petitions.
Attorney General Bill Lockyer and the California Association of District Attorneys oppose the bill.
Special Assistant Attorney General Scott Thorpe said his office would continue to work with the bill’s author, state Senate President Pro Tem John Burton of San Francisco, to work out language that would be agreeable to all parties.
The measure was drafted in part as a response to a March 7, 2001 Court of Appeal ruling in which this district denied coram nobis relief to Carlos Francisco Mendez, a defendant who was was sentenced to prison for three years on drug charges based on preliminary hearing testimony by LAPD Officer David Mack.
In her opinion for Div. One, Justice Miriam Vogel said Mendez’s remedy was to apply to the governor for a pardon.
“It is not up to us...to create an abstract ‘equitable remedy’ that in practical effect would be a roundabout way to issue a writ of coram nobis under circumstances where that writ will not issue,” Vogel wrote.
Review was denied by the state Supreme Court.
The bill would also provide a mechanism for defense lawyers in habeas corpus cases to get files from the original trial counsel.
Copyright 2002, Metropolitan News Company