- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 8, 2003

RICHMOND The State Crime Commission endorsed legislation yesterday extending from 21 days to 90 days Virginia's deadline for people convicted of crimes to produce new evidence of innocence.
The Virginia Supreme Court had proposed eliminating its 21-day rule but agreed to defer to the General Assembly. Any law passed by the legislature, which convenes for a 46-day session today, would supersede Supreme Court rules.
State Sen. Kenneth W. Stolle, Virginia Beach Republican and chairman of the commission, said the legislation would serve as "a placeholder" while legislators continue to study the issue over the next year.
Absent legislative action, he said, the Supreme Court might drop the 21-day rule a move many legislators believe goes too far. Delegate Robert F. McDonnell, Virginia Beach Republican, said a 90-day deadline seems about right.
Other lawmakers, however, said even that would be too harsh. Sen. Janet Howell, Fairfax County Democrat, said three months is as illogical as three weeks if a person has been wrongfully convicted.
Virginia has the nation's toughest rule for presenting newly discovered evidence of innocence. Only DNA evidence is an exception to Virginia's 21-day rule. Nineteen states and the District have no deadline, and other states have limits ranging from 30 days to three years, according to a commission study.
Delegate Kenneth Melvin, Portsmouth Democrat, said he was reluctant to approve a 90-day deadline if legislators are not sure that's the appropriate remedy.
"We may call this a placeholder, but once it goes into the code of Virginia it could be sitting there for 20 years," he said.
While supporters of a time limit say there must be some finality to criminal cases, critics argue that newly discovered evidence of innocence should never be barred.
"The idea that our courts are closed to innocent people serving life sentences for crimes they didn't commit is morally indefensible," said Steve D. Benjamin, a criminal defense attorney and special counsel to the crime commission.
"Innocence should always be the key to freedom. Considerations such as the need for finality and the possibility of frivolous appeals are just logistical problems to be solved in order to attain this compelling goal," he said.

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