- Associated Press - Friday, January 30, 2015

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) - Wrongly convicted Nebraska prisoners would have more chances to demonstrate their innocence under two bills presented Friday to a legislative committee.

Both measures would help clear some of the heavy legal obstacles that prisoners face in trying to overturn their wrongful convictions, supporters said in testimony to the Judiciary Committee.

Ada Joann Taylor, one of the so-called “Beatrice Six” who were wrongly convicted in a 1985 slaying, told lawmakers she’d still be in prison if one of her co-defendants hadn’t kept pushing for DNA tests to exonerate them. Taylor was exonerated six years ago after spending nearly 20 years in prison.

“My case shows that sometimes the criminal justice system gets it wrong,” she said. “When errors occur, there must be a way for wrongly convicted individuals to get back into court and prove their innocence.”

One measure would remove the three-year window after a conviction to seek a new trial based on newly discovered, non-DNA evidence. Arkansas, Idaho and Wyoming are the only other states that impose such a restriction.

Under the bill, judges could decide to grant a new trial based on each case’s merit.

“Placing an arbitrary time limit for such persons to prove their convictions were wrongful does not promote the interest of justice,” said Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks of Lincoln, the sponsor of both bills.

Nebraska’s current law could lead to a scenario in which a person convicted of murder remains behind bars even if a videotape later surfaces showing someone else committing the crime, said Tracy Hightower-Henne, executive director of the Nebraska Innocence Project.

Hightower-Henne said her group has received applications from Nebraska inmates that could have merit, but often it’s too late to act because the time to file has expired.

“The innocent person has no right to a new trial, even if there is no way that evidence could emerge prior to the three-year deadline,” she said.

Judges aren’t likely to see a flood of new filings if the bills pass, said Amy Miller, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Nebraska. Miller said the Nebraska Supreme Court has set a high bar for what constitutes new evidence, including a requirement that the evidence likely would have led to a different outcome at trial.

“If there is a floodgate, it’s not going to swing very far,” Miller said.

The second proposal would allow judges to order DNA testing on evidence that wasn’t previously tested, or where new technology could lead to more accurate or probative results.

Current law only allows the tests when such options weren’t available at trial. Nebraska was one of the first states in the nation to introduce a DNA testing law in 2001.

A 2012 report by the National Registry of Exonerations said 873 people exonerated between 1989 and 2012. Of that group, 548 were cleared without DNA evidence.

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The bills are LB244 and LB245.


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