Wrongful convictions persist in New York, advocates urge signing of new bill
New York state has one of the highest numbers of wrongful convictions in the nation - a fact that continues to cause disproportionate harm to Black and brown communities. Advocacy groups want Gov. Kathy Hochul to sign that they say it can help provide change.
“That conviction ruined my life," said Roger Clark, a Brooklyn native. At the age of 20, Clark says he was coerced into pleading guilty while detained at Rikers Island, a decision that continues to haunt him.
"It was either take that or end up facing eight to 25 years, and I couldn't see myself doing that, so I did what I had to do," said Clark.
He spent four years behind bars and has been tirelessly fighting since his release to clear his name. His case highlights a broader issue affecting New York - a state ranked third in the nation for wrongful convictions, according to the Innocence Project.
"In New York state, 330 people have been exonerated, but we expect the wrongful conviction rate to be at 2-4%. This means there are innocent individuals who have not been able to access justice," said Amanda Wallwin, state policy advocate with the Innocence Project.
Getting a wrongful conviction case into court is a complex process. It typically begins with a notice of appeal, followed by reviews of evidence. However, Wallwin says this process becomes significantly more challenging for those who pleaded guilty, as they often require DNA evidence - which accounts for only 10% of cases.
Advocates rallied outside of City Hall to urge Hochul to sign the Challenging Wrongful Convictions Act. The bill has already passed both the Assembly and Senate. Advocates say the bill will remove the barriers that hinder post-conviction reviews, allowing individuals like Roger Clark to present crucial evidence.
"For some reason, it happens that the vast majority of wrongfully convicted individuals look like me - Black and brown New Yorkers who spend years and even decades upstate for crimes they did not commit. It shouldn't be like that," said Clark.
"There's no justice in this system," said Derrick Hamilton, an advocate who served over 20 years behind bars for a crime he says he didn't commit.
Through his Family and Friends of the Wrongfully Convicted organization, Hamilton not only advocates for the wrongly convicted but he also says he’s helped in securing the release of more than 20 individuals.
Hamilton believes the heart of the problem lies in a justice system that prioritizes arrests and convictions over true justice. He describes it as a "numbers game,"
“It starts at the police precinct with cops wanting to make arrests fast. They don’t do investigations, and prosecutors who accept everything the cops give them,” said Hamilton.
Hamilton says the impacts of these rushed investigations destroy communities, and he believes wrongful convictions will continue to happen until the system is addressed.
“The men who stand with today have spent 30, 20 years in prison for crimes they didn’t commit. We can never get that back,” he said. “Right now there’s somebody that’s being railroaded in some precinct in some prosecutors office - this speaks volume as to why they don’t want to change the system."