- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 13, 2003

RICHMOND — Revising Virginia’s restrictive 21-day rule for convicted criminals to present evidence proving their innocence should focus on the type of evidence permitted, not on any time limit, the chairman of the Virginia State Crime Commission said yesterday.

Changing the rule “is the toughest task the crime commission has taken up in a long time,” state Sen. Kenneth W. Stolle, Virginia Beach Republican, said during a commission meeting. The commission, an arm of the General Assembly, will make recommendations to the 2004 General Assembly that convenes in January.

Mr. Stolle told commission members their responsibility is to figure out a way to ensure “that if somebody is truly innocent they shouldn’t be in jail.”

Crafting standards of proof “is probably going to be our greatest challenge,” he said. “That’s what we will have to focus on most.”

Crime commission staff attorney G. Stewart Petoe Sr. told the commission that 20 states have no time limit for seeking relief based on newly discovered evidence while others have limits ranging from 30 days to three years.

“I don’t care what other states have,” Mr. Stolle said. “Time limits are not as important as standards of evidence.”

Last month, legislators accepted Gov. Mark Warner’s amendment delaying enactment of a bill approved by the 2003 legislature to extend the 21-day rule.

Mr. Warner had proposed pushing back enactment of the bill a year to July 1, 2004, giving the crime commission more time to study ways to loosen the rule for introducing post-conviction evidence.

The bill approved by lawmakers in February would give people convicted of violent crimes 90 days after their convictions to introduce new evidence to prove their innocence. At the time, supporters said the bill was necessary as a “place holder” to prevent the Virginia Supreme Court from acting on its own to abolish the 21-day rule altogether.

The General Assembly created the first exception to the 21-day rule in 2001 when it passed legislation allowing an inmate to introduce new DNA evidence he claimed could exonerate him. Since then, several inmates have been freed based on DNA evidence.

The General Assembly also asked the commission to figure out a way to control private gun sales, a regulatory task that the commission’s acting executive director said would be virtually impossible.

“I don’t know how we would find out how many private guns are being sold,” said Kimberly J. Hamilton. “We don’t have the resources. Even if we did, I don’t know how we would find out,” other than placing undercover agents at every table at gun shows, she said.

Mr. Stolle noted that the Virginia State Police don’t have the resources to trace private gun sales.

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