State Senator Joe Pennacchio, alongside exonerees, advocates, members of the NAACP, Senate Republican Leader Tom Kean and Senator Anthony Bucco, held a press conference on Oct. 5 calling on Legislative leaders to immediately act on his bipartisan legislation, S-3045, to reduce wrongful convictions in New Jersey.
Sen. Joe Pennacchio (at the podium), NAACP NJ President Richard Smith, Lesley Risinger, Founder of The Last Resort Exoneration Project; and AJ Nash, a wrongfully convicted and exonerated man, speak at an Oct. 5 press conference calling on Pennacchio’s, S-3045, to reduce wrongful convictions in New Jersey. (SenateNJ.com)
“Our criminal justice system isn’t perfect. Even for an innocent person with an ironclad case, the journey towards exoneration is a steep climb, and the road to getting the restitution they deserve can be even harder,” Senator Pennacchio said. “I put forward a bipartisan solution to find out why the system is failing so many people months ago. The wrongfully convicted of New Jersey shouldn’t have to wait any longer for this Legislature to take action.”
Senator Pennacchio’s legislation (S-3045) would establish “New Jersey Innocence Study and Review Commission,” which would be charged with developing reforms to prevent wrongful convictions statewide. Inmates who are wrongfully convicted in New Jersey spend an average of ten years behind bars before exoneration, according to the National Registry of Exonerations.
S-3045 was introduced in February. Following recent high-profile news reports of ongoing wrongful conviction cases, Sen. Pennacchio called the press conference to shed light his legislation.
“I strongly support Senator Pennacchio’s efforts to seek justice for wrongfully convicted individuals in New Jersey, Senate Republican Leader Tom Kean said. “Clearly, there is a critical need for this legislation. I hope that it will advance as swiftly as possible.”
Pennacchio was joined at the press conference by two people who were wrongfully convicted and exonerated: Rodney Roberts and A.J. Nash.
Rodney Roberts spent 17 years behind bars before being exonerated by DNA evidence and released from prison in 2014. A.J. Nash spent a decade seeking justice before being exonerated in 2013. Both men are listed in the National Registry of Exonerations.
Also participating in the press conference were Lesley Risinger, Director of The Last Resort Exoneration Project at Seton Hall Law School, and NAACP New Jersey State conference President Richard Smith.
“I wholeheartedly applaud Senator Pennacchio for seeing a need and ultimately authoring meaningful legislation to address that need,” NJSC NAACP President Richard Smith said. “We are optimistic that this legislation can address the racial disparity among wrongfully convicted individuals in the state, as African Americans make up a disproportionate amount of people found to have been convicted of crimes they did not commit, both in state and in the nation.”
A.J. Nash, an exoneree, (center) speaking at the New Jersey State House press conference on Oct. 5. (SenateNJ.com)
Rodney Roberts, one of the two exonerees who spoke at today’s press conference, now serves as an advocate for people seeking exoneration. He currently lives in Newark, and is still working with a lawyer to obtain compensation from the state for his unjust conviction.
“Being forced to plead guilty, knowing you’re innocent, is one of the worst things that could happen to an innocent person,” exoneree Rodney Roberts said. “But it happens more than you think. Then to find out later that, despite being exonerated, your guilty plea will keep you from getting compensation, is like being punished a second time for a crime you didn’t commit.”
Lesley Risinger, who also spoke at today’s press conference, is the founder and director of The Last Resort Exoneration Project at Seton Hall Law School. Since 2011, the program has provided pro-bono legal and investigative services to the convicted innocent of New Jersey.
Risinger organized and led the team that obtained the exoneration of Fernando Bermudez, who spent 18 years in prison for a murder he did not commit. Currently, Risinger and her husband, Dr. Michael Risinger, are working to exonerate Kevin Baker and Sean Washington, who are serving 30 year to life sentences for a double murder. The case is the subject of an two-part investigative series on NJ.com. Risinger also teaches courses on exoneration at Seton Hall Law.
“At Last Resort Exoneration Project at Seton Hall Law School, we have seen firsthand how easy it is for our criminal justice system to make a serious mistake, before, during, and after trial, resulting in the unjust incarceration of the actually innocent,” Lesley Risinger said. “Even though there are safeguards to our trial system, and even though there is a system of post-conviction review in our State, our system has been known to fail nonetheless. We applaud the efforts of New Jersey legislators who seek to implement fresh ideas for correcting the system when it fails and for compensating the innocent for their unjust incarceration.”
About Sen. Pennacchio’s S-3045, Establishing “The New Jersey Study and Review Commission”
The “New Jersey Innocence Study and Review Commission,” as established by Sen. Pennacchio’s S-3045 would review all aspects of criminal cases involving wrongful conviction in New Jersey and recommend reforms to reduce the likelihood of wrongful conviction occurring in the future.
Under S-3045, the commission must make a specific recommendation for establishing a permanent panel before which a person who believes they have been the victim of a wrongful conviction could request a review of their own conviction, including those that are currently incarcerated.
The commission’s responsibilities would also include:
- Identifying the main causes of wrongful conviction and studying existing research on these causes;
- Recommending best practices to appropriate constituencies
- Examining the existing system of restitution to compensate wrongfully convicted persons
- Studying successful programs that assist with reintegration back into society following release
The commission would be composed of nine members, including two appointed by the Senate President and two appointed by the Assembly Speaker. The commission chairperson, appointed by the Governor, must be a retired Superior Court judge or retired justice of the Supreme Court.
The remaining members would include the Public Defender; the Attorney General; the Administrative Director of the Courts; a representative of the County Prosecutors Association of New Jersey, or their respective designees. All members must be appointed within 45 days of enactment of the bill.
The commission would have 18 months following appointments to issue a report of its findings and recommendations to the Legislature and the Governor.
Nationwide, more than 2,000 wrongfully convicted persons have been exonerated since 1989, according to the National Registry on Exonerations. However, the Registry estimates that there are tens of thousands of false convictions annually, with many more piling up over time.
“I am grateful to Rodney Roberts, A.J. Nash, Professor Risinger, and the NAACP for their efforts to shed light on the challenges people who are wrongfully convicted face in New Jersey,” Senator Pennacchio added. “Rodney and A.J.’s stories are not unique. There are many more like them. Whether it’s due to DNA evidence, a false confession, or something else, anyone with a legitimate claim of innocence deserves the opportunity to seek justice. I hope that my colleagues in the Senate will listen to their concerns and respond by immediately posting my bill for a hearing. No one should have to spend a decade behind bars for a crime they did not commit.”
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