There’s more to acquitting than the glove not fitting. So most New York criminal cases don’t make it to trial—instead, they’re overwhelmingly resolved through plea bargaining. For wrongfully-convicted New Yorkers who plead guilty, the only pathway to pursuing exoneration is through DNA evidence, even if they can prove innocence without it. 

But a bill amending this roadblock just took its next step in becoming a law. The State Assembly passed the Challenging Wrongful Convictions Act last Thursday, March 23. If passed, it would allow New Yorkers to challenge credible wrongful convictions if they plead guilty with non-DNA evidence.

“It is a crime that New Yorkers are languishing in prison for crimes that they did not commit,” said sponsoring Assembly Member Jeffrion Aubry. “My legislation will allow those who have been wrongfully convicted to seek justice by providing the opportunity for applicants for post-conviction relief to submit evidence of their innocence and provides a remedy for those convicted under laws that have since been decriminalized or found to be unconstitutional.”

“The Assembly Majority is committed to building a criminal justice system that ensures that every person in our state is able to seek justice,” added Speaker Carl Heastie. “But far too many New Yorkers are sitting behind bars for crimes they did not commit. This legislation will put into place the mechanisms to review cases of those who have been wrongly convicted and for them to present evidence of their innocence.”

These barriers to exoneration stem from the 2018 ruling of People v. Tiger, where the New York Court of Appeals—the final word in the state’s court system—ruled those who plead guilty cannot challenge convictions without the backing of DNA evidence. And 96% of the state’s felony cases end in a plea agreement. 

Elizabeth Felber, who directs the Legal Aid Society’s Wrongful Convictions Unit, says the bill would make the Tiger ruling obsolete and open the door to more commonsense exonerations in her line of work. 

“Everybody knows innocent people plead guilty because of the risks involved,” she said. “To [go] home to your children, to try to get your job back, all of this. I’ve seen people where they had great defense claims [but] they were offered a felony and probation. And they gave themselves a felony conviction to get out of jail.”

The bill also includes post-conviction discovery—which allows the acquisition of evidence from the other party, a move Felber says would allow those seeking exoneration to more comprehensively build their case. She says it would reduce her unit’s dependency on public records requests, which are frequently fought “tooth and nail” by the agencies providing the information, leading to long delays. 

And the bill would also afford a right-to-counsel to those challenging a wrongful conviction. 

VOCAL-NY community leader Roger Clark says the Challenging Wrongful Convictions Act would help him clear his name. 

“If it becomes law today, it will simply open up the door for me to get back into court [to] have a hearing, get discovery and—after my lawyers look through everything—have a long conversation about what’s the best way to fight this case,” he said. 

To be clear, not everyone challenging a wrongful conviction is seeking prison release. Clark says he’s seeking vindication to remove the “dark cloud” hanging over his head. Vacating a felony also means an easier time searching for housing and employment in a city where both are often already difficult to obtain. 

And exoneration allows the wrongfully convicted to seek restitution. Earlier this week, the state paid out $5.5 million to Anthony Broadwater who was wrongfully convicted for the 1981 rape of author Alice Sebold. He spent 16 years in prison and was exonerated two years ago, according to the New York Times. But while time might be money, money isn’t always a substitute for time. 

“Anybody who’s been wrongfully convicted will tell you that you don’t really get the time back,” said Felber. 
Tandy Lau is a Report for America corps member and writes about public safety for the Amsterdam News. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep him writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by visiting

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