Donate today to triple your impact!

New York Can Stand up for the Wrongfully Convicted—and Against Clarence Thomas

By signing the Challenging Wrongful Convictions Act into law, Governor Kathy Hochul can set a model of good policy for other progressive states seeking to serve as a bulwark against the conservative Supreme Court.

kathy hochul
Governor Kathy Hochul at public appearance on June 9, 2022.Metropolitan Transit Authority

Under its Trump-appointed conservative supermajority, the U.S. Supreme Court has spent the past two terms upending abortion rights, attacking environmental law and the LGBTQ+ community, and challenging long-standing precedent on racial equity. In a June decision that received much less attention, justices also further eroded the rights of people in federal prisons, ruling that the “finality” of a conviction is more important than safeguarding the rights of those who might be wrongfully convicted.

In the face of these assaults by the judiciary, it is more important than ever for states like New York to lead the way on progressive policies that can serve as a model for the rest of the nation.

In New York, the state legislature and Governor Kathy Hochul have set good examples on some issues for how they can serve as an ideological bulwark against the ultraconservative court. After justices overturned Roe v. Wade last year, Hochul offered a full-throated rebuttal and worked quickly to pass legislation enshrining some of the country’s most robust abortion protections. New York has also begun the process of passing the Equal Rights Amendment to further enhance gender justice, access to contraception, and rights for LGBTQ+ residents.

This is what states ought to do in response to Supreme Court rulings that shift federal law considerably away from public consensus. On the issue of wrongful convictions, Hochul now has an opportunity to once again lead by example by signing legislation that would remove many significant legal barriers New Yorkers face in the fight for exoneration, in part by providing critical support for post-conviction discovery and counsel. The legislation, known as the Challenging Wrongful Convictions Act, passed the state legislature in June and must be signed or vetoed by the end of the year.

In June, the Supreme Court held in Jones v. Hendrix that people in federal prisons who have already filed for post-conviction relief can be barred from filing a second time, even if they are legally innocent. As a result, some people who are incarcerated in federal prison for conduct that is not even a crime will be forced to languish behind bars. The Jones decision applies only to federal cases and therefore does not directly affect people incarcerated in New York state prisons. But it does speak to a larger ideological battle playing out around wrongful convictions and the integrity of the criminal legal system.

Writing for the majority, Justice Clarence Thomas stated that the state’s interest in “finality” outweighs the innocent person’s claims of actual innocence. Punishing innocent people with incarceration is, of course, bad public policy. It is also deeply unpopular with many Americans and New Yorkers.

The ruling in Jones followed a similar decision in Shinn v. Martinez Ramirez last year, in which the conservative wing of the court severely weakened the rights of wrongfully convicted people to seek relief. In an opinion also authored by Thomas, the court prohibited people from introducing new evidence into certain federal court proceedings if it had not previously been introduced in state court. The decision removed a possible avenue for relief for the wrongfully convicted and ensured that people with solid claims of innocence—including New Yorkers—will continue to face extreme punishment, including death by incarceration or, in many states, execution.

In both of those cases, the conservative majority has argued that it is more important to leave convictions intact than to allow people to introduce new evidence of their innocence. This is an indefensible position, especially in light of the thousands of innocent people who have been exonerated due to new evidence, as well as estimates that at least 5 percent of incarcerated people have been wrongfully convicted. It is a morally repugnant misinterpretation of the law that has devastating consequences, especially for Black and brown people and other communities who are disproportionately caught in the crossfire of an overzealous criminal punishment bureaucracy.

The court’s liberal bloc—Justices Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan, and Ketanji Brown Jackon—has meanwhile held that assessing actual innocence and guilt is the fundamental role of the legal system. Their minority opinions in these cases argued that the law should give people more flexibility to introduce new evidence to prove their innocence.

The New York legislature’s passage of the Challenging Wrongful Convictions Act set up a similar debate weighing the “finality” of convictions against the rights of New Yorkers to prove their innocence.

The Challenging Wrongful Convictions Act gives state courts a legal mechanism to review cases and vacate convictions when there is evidence of a person’s factual innocence, even if the path to relief in federal court remains closed. The bill also expands the potential for relief to cases involving the forensic testing of new evidence beyond DNA evidence—an important shift given the development of science around wrongful convictions.

This legislation is a common-sense response to troubling data underscoring the prominence of wrongful convictions in New York. Since 1989, nearly 350 people in the state have been exonerated due to new evidence—the third-most of any state in that period, according to the National Registry of Exonerations. New York is one of only five states that does not grant the right to an attorney in post-conviction cases, further complicating the process for the untold number of wrongfully convicted people who may be in state prisons because of New York’s unjust criminal procedures and sordid history of misguided policies. 

Some opponents in law enforcement have taken the line of Justice Thomas, arguing convictions would be subject to legal challenges, sometimes years after a case concludes. Their vision of justice prioritizes efficiency and finality over innocence and guilt, even if it means New Yorkers will languish in prisons for crimes they did not commit. This view conflicts with a growing number of New York district attorneys who have taken action in recent years to expand the process for conviction review and exoneration.

The Challenging Wrongful Convictions Act passed the legislature by wide margins, and it only needs Governor Hochul’s signature to become law. With the stroke of a pen, she could enact meaningful protections for New Yorkers while positioning herself against conservative Supreme Court justices who are eroding the rights of Americans on a variety of issues. In siding ideologically with the liberal bloc of the court, Hochul would also be making New York a model for states with less robust processes for post-conviction relief.

Inaction on this bill is a policy choice to deny wrongfully convicted people the chance to present evidence that shows their innocence. New York can do better than Justice Thomas’s vision of injustice.