Monday, Oct. 2, is Wrongful Conviction Day, the annual observance dedicated to ending wrongful convictions, and an opportunity to acknowledge the many people who have pleaded guilty to crimes they did not commit.
Despite the fact that about 11 percent of the nation’s DNA-based exonerations involved a guilty plea, certain laws still do not permit access to DNA when the defendant originally pleaded guilty. Sadly, sometimes pleading guilty is the only reasonable choice for an innocent person.
Chris Ochoa was faced with such a dilemma when he was just 22, after being coerced into confessing to the rape and murder of his colleague Nancy DePriest in Austin, Texas. He was assigned an attorney who had only recently graduated from law school and was unequipped to litigate a death-penalty case.
After six months in jail, with his mother begging him to take a plea deal to avoid execution, and little confidence in his defense, Mr. Ochoa made the hardest decision of his life: He pleaded guilty to a crime that he did not commit. Eight years later, another prisoner serving three life sentences confessed to the murder. DNA testing later confirmed this confession, and Chris Ochoa was exonerated — after spending 12 years in prison.
The reality is that there is tremendous pressure for innocent people to plead guilty. Prosecutors will offer plea deals that involve reduced charges, yet make it clear that they will file all charges and seek the maximum sentence if the case goes to trial.
As an attorney practicing at the Defender Association of Philadelphia for seven years, I often represented the accused faced with this tough decision even if innocent. With the threat of a severely long sentence and an uphill court battle, a plea deal gives them hope of seeing the light of day and a chance to reconnect with their family. Despite the consequences of pleading guilty, the choice can seem to be the most rational option even for someone who is falsely accused.
For many people, this decision is unimaginable and difficult to understand. However, one in 10 Americans exonerated with DNA evidence pleaded guilty to crimes he or she did not commit.
Despite this fact, Pennsylvania’s current law bars people who pleaded guilty from being eligible for DNA testing that can prove their innocence and potentially identify the actual culprits. Pennsylvania is one of only five states with this restriction. Considering that 95 percent of felonies are resolved through guilty pleas, this is a major obstacle to overturning wrongful convictions in our state.
That’s why I am a cosponsor of Rep. Tedd Nesbit’s proposed bipartisan legislation that would improve the state’s DNA testing law for the wrongfully convicted by removing the restriction on people who pleaded guilty and the requirement for a Pennsylvanian to be in prison or on parole or probation to be eligible for DNA testing. This bill would give those individuals a channel to clear their names and move on with their lives.
Fair and meaningful access to DNA testing is lacking in our current law and can make a profound difference in the injustices we see in wrongful-conviction cases. The Pennsylvania legislature must take action to fully use DNA testing for the innocent, to promote truth and justice and ensure public safety.
State Rep. Joanna McClinton represents the 191st Legislative District in Philadelphia and Delaware Counties.