by Brett Wilkins
Criminal justice reform advocates expressed anger and disappointment after Democratic New York Gov. Kathy Hochul vetoed legislation that would have made it easier for wrongfully convicted people to fight for their exoneration.
Senate Bill S7548, the Challenging Wrongful Convictions Act, would have empowered innocent people who pleaded guilty to crimes—a common occurrence in the plea bargain-driven U.S. criminal justice system—to have a new day in court.
Introduced by New York state Sen. Zellnor Myrie (D-20), the bill would allow people without the benefit of DNA evidence in their cases to seek redress to prove their innocence. The measure also allows access to post-conviction discovery and grants the right to counsel for people with wrongful conviction claims.
Explaining what it says is the need for the legislation, the Innocence Project noted: “New York has the third-highest number of wrongful convictions in the nation. Currently, the law makes it effectively impossible for innocent people who plead guilty and do not have the benefit of DNA evidence to challenge their convictions in court. This prevents countless people with credible innocence claims from getting relief in court.”
While criminal justice reformers backed the bill, it was staunchly opposed by prosecutors.
“Gov. Hochul’s failure to sign the Challenging Wrongful Convictions Act only shows that she believes that innocent people should be in prison,” Roger Clark, who leads the activist group VOCAL-NY, said in a statement. “There’s no excuse for her not to sign this bill.”
“We will be back in Albany in January to continue our efforts to end wrongful incarceration and to keep fighting until there is justice,” Clark added.
New York County Defender Services executive director Stan Germán said that as a result of Hochul’s veto, “innocent New Yorkers will continue to sit in our jails and prisons, or remain saddled with an unlawful criminal record in our communities, unable to clear their names.”
Hochul also vetoed the Fair Courts for Immigrant New Yorkers Act, legislation that passed for a second time in June and which would amend state law to require courts to advise noncitizen defendants of the risk of deportation before they accept plea deals.
“I am deeply disappointed in Gov. Hochul’s decision to again veto the bill, despite our willingness to negotiate possible amendments,” said state Assemblymember Catalina Cruz (D-39), who sponsored the lower chamber’s version of the legislation.
“The veto of this vital piece of legislation is a setback for the rights and dignity of immigrant New Yorkers,” she added. “It disregards the needs and concerns of our diverse immigrant communities, leaving them vulnerable to potential injustices within our legal system.”
Yasmin Farhang, director of advocacy at the Immigrant Defense Project, asserted that Hochul’s veto “shows a blatant disdain for immigrants’ rights and a disregard for the legislative process.”
“Immigrant New Yorkers are too often unaware that a plea in criminal court can have devastating results—including detention, deportation, and ineligibility for citizenship—and therefore do not seek the immigration advice they are constitutionally entitled to,” she continued.
“This bill would have made these protections meaningful and created accountability mechanisms where immigrants’ rights are violated,” Farhang added. “We are incredibly disappointed that the governor has again vetoed it and put the rights of immigrant New Yorkers at risk.”