Many folks react with frustration upon hearing that a criminal has been released on a “technicality,” such as an illegal search or lack of a speedy trial. I find it much more infuriating, however, when innocent convicts cannot have their new evidence heard due to tortured legal reasoning (an even more insidious form of “technicality”).
For instance, the Illinois Post-Conviction Hearing Act permits a prisoner to challenge his conviction based on new evidence of actual innocence. But exactly what is “new evidence”?
Let’s take an example. John Q. Unfortunate is charged with an armed robbery that was actually committed by Larry, Curly, and Moe. John knows who the actual robbers were, but not surprisingly, they refuse to testify on his behalf. Larry flees the jurisdiction, Curly lies and says he wasn’t involved, and Moe takes the Fifth. John is convicted based on a mistaken identification and is sentenced to a long prison term.
Years later, however, Larry, Curly, and Moe have a change of heart and sign sworn affidavits admitting their own participation and exonerating John. Is this new evidence? Logically, one would assume so because their accounts weren’t heard at the original trial.
But logic does not always drive the law. Read what one Illinois appellate court panel recently wrote on the subject:
“[E]vidence is not newly discovered when it presents facts already known to a defendant at or prior to trial, though the source of these facts may have been unknown, unavailable or uncooperative.”
In other words, because our John Q. Unfortunate knew before trial who the real offenders were, the recent confessions of Larry, Curly, and Moe cannot be offered as new evidence. On the other hand, had John not learned their identities until after trial, he could now present the affidavits as “newly discovered” evidence and possibly win his freedom. Talk about a “technicality”!
No conceivable societal interest is furthered by the refusal to consider new proof of innocence. The aforementioned appellate court ruling is either blatantly incorrect (my view), or else the Illinois Post-Conviction Hearing Act should be amended so that new evidence of innocence may be offered at any time (also my view). Let us hope that our legislators will be brave enough to take this step without fear of being labeled soft on crime. Remember, for every innocent person locked up for a crime she did not commit, there is at least one unpunished criminal still at large.