- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 14, 2004

RICHMOND — People wrongly convicted of felonies will have unlimited time to present newly discovered evidence of innocence as a result of action taken by the 2004 General Assembly.

But people who drive drunk will face harsher penalties if Gov. Mark Warner, Democrat, signs several bills backed by the legislature’s Republican majority.

The measures ending the “21-day rule” for introduction of new evidence and cracking down on drunken driving were the most high-profile criminal justice bills passed during a legislative session dominated by tax and budget issues.

The Virginia Crime Commission spent the previous year studying the 21-day rule, the most restrictive law of its kind in the nation. The law set a deadline of three days after sentencing for those convicted of felonies to present any newly discovered evidence that might exonerate them.

The bill passed by the legislature lifts the deadline but limits felons to just one writ of innocence — a provision intended to prevent clogging the courts with frivolous claims.

Only felons who entered not-guilty pleas at trial would be allowed to bring new evidence, and the legislation says the evidence must be so compelling that no reasonable person would have found the person guilty.

Delegate Ward Armstrong, Henry Democrat, said the bill strikes the proper balance between public safety and protecting the innocent.

“I don’t think we’ve thrown open the prison gates by any means,” he said. “But we also don’t want innocent people sitting in jail.”

Delegate Rob Bell, Albemarle Republican, remains one of the bill’s staunchest critics. He said without some deadline for appeals, crime victims will forever be subject to having their cases reopened.

“At some point the crime victims deserve to get on with their life,” Mr. Bell said.

Mr. Warner has said he supports the bill in concept, but needs to see the specifics before deciding whether to sign it or offer amendments that would be considered at the one-day veto override session this spring.

The governor has not yet taken a position on more than a dozen bills that were passed to toughen drunken-driving laws, including one that would allow the state to seize a person’s car after a third DUI conviction.

Other measures would deny bail for third-time offenders, impose minimum mandatory sentences or fines and extend the period of time police have to administer a blood or breath test following a DUI stop.

“This was the most comprehensive assault on drunk driving we’ve had in at least a decade — maybe ever,” Mr. Bell said.

The car-forfeiture bill was the most controversial, initially failing by two votes in the House but then passing 52-48 after proponents persuaded their colleagues to reconsider.

Critics of the bill worried that it could create a hardship for the driver’s spouse or children by taking away the family car. Their concern was addressed by an amendment allowing a family member to petition for release of the vehicle if it is the only one owned by the family.

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