At the time Pennsylvania’s post-conviction access laws were passed in 1995, DNA exonerations were not yet on the radar. We certainly did not have the awareness then about the flaws in the criminal justice system, and how innocent people can be convicted of crimes they did not commit.
The 1995 amendments to the law put a new restriction on access to courts for those seeking to prove their innocence after a wrongful conviction. Whereas before 1995, those claiming they had been wrongfully convicted could file petitions at any time based upon newly discovered facts (like a witness who finally came forward or a true perpetrator accepting guilt), the new amendments imposed a strict 60 day deadline.
The past 17 years has shown how crushing that restrictive window is. How many innocent people have had their hopes of freedom dashed by learning that the evidence that proves their innocence will never be heard because they filed a petition too late? Because they are, in the court’s language, “time-barred”? If the answer to that question is even a single person — if even one person who is truly innocent cannot access the court to establish that a terrible injustice has occurred — then our laws are not working. They must be changed.
This Friday, the Pennsylvania Senate Judiciary Committee will hear testimony for and against expanding our current 60 day timeframe to one year. The bill under consideration, SB 1153, is a meager improvement but a necessary one. Allowing inmates one year to properly investigate evidence of innocence is a minimum protection that might help restore justice and fairness in the post-conviction.
To learn more about SB 1153 and how to help encourage its passing, visit our Act4Innocence in Pennsylvania website, nobar4innocence.com. This change is nearly 20 years overdue; innocence should never be time-barred.