Proposed wrongful-conviction bill would lower bar for new evidence

Man in blue T-shirt speaks at lectern
Marvin Haynes speaks to reporters at a news conference after a judge vacated his conviction.
Matt Sepic | MPR News

State lawmakers are in week two of this year’s legislative session. A bill related to wrongful convictions got a hearing before the House Judiciary Committee this week.

The proposed legislation (HF 2400/SF 2597) would allow more convicted cases to get a second look if there’s new evidence. Andrew Markquart, managing attorney at Great North Innocence Project, says he hopes this will give more people with legitimate claims another day in court.

“As the law stands now, unless you have something like DNA or something similarly dispositive, it’s almost impossible to get back into court. And it leaves a lot of really strong claims out of court and innocent people in prison.”

Marvin Haynes who was exonerated in December after spending 20 years in jail testified at Tuesday’s hearing in support of the bill. The Great North Innocence Project worked on his case as well as this bill.

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The legislation comes after a busy session last year that included a revision to the felony murder law, changes to the pardon law and added funding for conviction review units.

Markquart spoke with All Things Considered host Tom Crann about why the bill matters.

To hear the full interview, click on the audio player above. The following transcription has been edited for length and clarity.

This bill would modify the statute of limitations here in Minnesota. That’s a two-year window on how long people have to get their case looked at again after a conviction if there’s supposedly new evidence. Why is a two-year window a problem as you see it?

The problem is that oftentimes new evidence will come to light, and it might not come up within two years — not because of anyone’s fault, not because they weren’t looking for it or exercising due diligence.

You just never know when evidence is going to come to light. And when it does, it’s only just that that person should have a shot, bring that evidence into court and to get a hearing on that.

As the law stands now, unless you have something like DNA or something similarly dispositive, it’s almost impossible to get back into court. And it leaves a lot of really strong claims out of court and innocent people in prison.

What sort of a change are you looking for? Is there any state or jurisdiction that has such a change that you can use as a model?

Right now, it’s a very, very high bar to get to get back into court if you’re more than two years out. Specifically, you have to affirmatively prove innocence by a clear and convincing standard, which oftentimes is just impossible to do.

It’s a standard that is not required by most states. We’re actually an outlier on how hard we make it just to get back into court. So our proposal would be if you have new facts, new evidence — and it’s truly new — and that new evidence supports an otherwise valid legal claim, you get your day in court.

Can you point to an example where this would have made a difference?

The case that we’re highlighting right now is a client of ours, Marvin Haynes. Now, we had new evidence in his case, but based on the standard as it exists, very likely, we never would have gotten back into court — let alone gotten him exonerated. Except for that the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office agreed to waive that statute of limitations.

And that’s great, you know, we got to the right result in that case, but that’s no way to do public policy. You know, you need to have standards that make sense, that are fair, and that promote just results across the board consistently because there’s more people like Marvin Haynes out there. And right now, many of them are not getting their day in court.

There are concerns that this would burden the courts, clog the courts and a lot of resources would be expended to look at cases that have already technically been resolved. What’s your answer to that and how many do you see that you’re talking about?

You know, it’s hard to estimate exactly how many cases we’re talking about. I do not believe that this will lead to an enormous flood of frivolous litigation, which is what some folks are concerned about. What people need to understand is there are a lot of procedural bars that keep people out of court.

It is very, very hard to get a conviction overturned. This will remove one of those hurdles and it’s one that’s out of step with the way most states handle things. It’s really just going to give a chance to those few cases where people have a truly a meritorious claim for wrongful conviction.