New Jersey Law School Takes on Wrongful Convictions

Legal advocates estimate that 58 wrongly convicted men and women are currently behind bars in the state of New Jersey. The figures are based on the state’s prison population and the estimated national percentage of inmates that are factually innocent of serious crimes.

In the last 15 years, eight people have been exonerated in New Jersey, the majority with DNA evidence. In one of the most widely publicized wrongful conviction cases, Byron Halsey was vindicated after DNA evidence absolved him in the sexual assault and murders of two young children. The evidence implicated another New Jersey man who was serving prison time for several other sex crimes and had testified against Halsey at trial.

In an effort to bring more of these cases to light, the Last Resort Exoneration Project at Seton Hall University School of Law was established to offer pro bono legal services. It is the first and only program dedicated exclusively to the convicted innocent in New Jersey.

The Last Resort Exoneration Project recently filed its first petition. It argues that new evidence exonerates Kevin Baker for a 1995 double-murder in Camden, New Jersey. Baker was 25 when he was convicted and is serving 60 years to life. The petition cites new scientific evince, including reports from ballistic and forensic experts, questionable eyewitness testimony, an overzealous police officer, and an inept defense attorney as grounds for vacating the conviction.

While overturning a criminal conviction may seem like a long shot, so-called “innocence groups” are making strides against what is a largely overlooked problem. On the national level, 301 convictions have been vacated based on DNA evidence alone, according to the Innocence Project. Of the innocent, 18 served time on death row.

The common flaws observed in the overturned cases are also the same as those asserted in Baker’s petition. Faulty eyewitness testimony was cited in 72 percent of convictions later vacated using DNA evidence, making it the leading contributor to wrongful convictions. Meanwhile, invalided or improper forensic evidence contributed to approximately 50 percent of wrongful convictions overturned through DNA testing.

Donald Scarinci is a managing partner at Lyndhurst, N.J. based law firm Scarinci Hollenbeck.  He is also the editor of the Constitutional Law Reporter and Government and Law blogs.

 

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