California Dreaming? The Golden State's Restless Approach to Newly Discovered Evidence of Innocence
Daniel S. Medwed
Northeastern University - School of Law
UC Davis Law Review, Vol. 40, 2007
U of Utah Legal Studies Paper No. 05-40
The emergence of DNA testing since 1989 has jolted the criminal justice system, resulting in the exoneration of 175 innocent defendants nationwide and causing many observers to reassess their views of the system's effectiveness. Even so, only an estimated 10-20% of criminal cases have biological evidence suitable for DNA testing, suggesting that documented DNA exonerations are just the tip of the innocence iceberg and that state treatment of other types of innocence claims must be critically examined.
California has a somewhat unique - and draconian - approach to newly discovered non-DNA evidence of innocence. Although newly discovered evidence is currently recognized as a ground for relief under the state's habeas corpus remedy, obtaining such relief is difficult in practice given the existence of onerous legal and evidentiary requirements. In addition to habeas corpus, California offers other potential avenues for litigating claims of innocence predicated on new evidence - including ordinary new trial motions and the common law writ of error coram nobis - that boast obstacles in their own right. The presence of high hurdles for proving innocence through newly discovered evidence in California derives in part from the state courts' historic skepticism to the validity of such evidence. Still, the lessons learned from the DNA revolution indicate that wrongful convictions occur with greater frequency than previously imagined and that courts should put aside their traditional wariness and display greater openness to the potential legitimacy of innocence claims, whether based on scientific or non-scientific evidence. After all, justice for an innocent prisoner should not depend on the off-chance the actual perpetrator left biological evidence at the crime scene that was found by the investigating officers and properly inventoried and preserved over time.
The treatment of non-scientific newly discovered evidence of innocence is an issue of critical importance in California. The state's criminal justice system has recently faced attack for its perceived propensity to convict the innocent at a startling rate. What is more, California annually vies with Texas for the dubious honor of leading the nation in the size of its state prison population, with some commentators speculating that its penal system comprises the third largest in the world.
Part I of this Article explores the full range of possible remedies concerning newly discovered evidence claims in California state courts. Next, Part II describes the flaws with the current approach, and Part III then proposes several reforms designed to achieve greater access to the courts and thereby better effectuate the goal of freeing the wrongfully convicted in California.
Number of Pages in PDF File: 36
Keywords: innocence, wrongful convictions, post-conviction, habeas corpus, coram nobis, California
Date posted: May 8, 2006