Innocence Reform Bill Crafted at UC College of Law On Verge of Becoming Ohio Law
What one legislator termed "one of the most important pieces of criminal justice legislation in this state in a century" was passed by the Ohio House on Tuesday with broad bipartisan support, putting the bill that began as a winter-break research effort by UC law students on the cusp of becoming state law.
Date: 3/16/2010 12:00:00 AM
By: Carey Hoffman
Phone: (513) 556-1825
Photos By: Dottie Stover
One of the most comprehensive criminal justice reform bills in Ohio history – which originated with students from the UC College of Law – is now just a stroke of the governor’s pen away from becoming law.
If signed, the new law will offer Ohio strong new protections for avoiding instances of wrongful convictions in serious criminal cases. “This set of new provisions will make Ohio a national model in the area of innocence reform,” said Mark Godsey, UC professor of law and faculty director for the Ohio Innocence Project.
|Awaiting the Ohio House's vote in the gallery are (back row, l. to r.) Ohio Sen. David Goodman, UC Professor of Law Mark Godsey, exoneree Clarence Elkins, exoneree Robert McClendon, Robert's brother, Lewis McClendon and Molly Taylor.|
On Tuesday, the Ohio House of Representatives approved by an 85-7 margin a bill previously passed by the Ohio Senate to substantially strengthen procedures during the criminal investigation process. Specifically, the bill, called Senate Bill 77, creates:
- A requirement for preservation of DNA evidence in all cases of serious crime, such as homicide and sexual assault
- Police incentives for the recording of all interrogations from beginning to end in cases of serious crime
- A requirement for police lineups and eyewitness photo ID procedures to be conducted in double-blind fashion, meaning the officer who oversees the eyewitness procedure with the witness does not know who among the sample pool is the suspect
- An expansion of Ohio’s post-conviction DNA testing law to allow for DNA testing to be done during the parole phase of the justice cycle
The research and drafting that started the process was undertaken two years ago by a group of then-first year UC law students, working over the break between the fall and spring semesters at the law school as part of the Ohio Innocence Project, which is based in the UC College of Law. The legislative effort was commenced as part of a joint project between the Ohio Innocence Project and the Columbus Dispatch.
Those students who worked on the project, and who are now in their final semester of law school, included: Christie Bebo, Chris Liu, Peter O’Shea, Eric Gooding, Amanda Marie Smith, Patrick Brown, Elizabeth Zilberberg, Jonathan Haas and Tommy Kemp. “To see this on its way to becoming law is a great feeling,” said Amanda Marie Smith, who once had a family member who once faced the jeopardy of a wrongful conviction. “I grew up understanding that mentality that mistakes can be made, and they can have an impact.”
With guidance from Godsey and 2006 College of Law graduate Michele Berry, the students drafted a research memorandum that proposed legislation that was submitted to the General Assembly and Governor Strickland in February 2008.
This written proposal was the impetus for what eventually became Senate Bill 77.
The Innocence Project, a national organization based in New York, worked closely with the Ohio Innocence Project to build legislative support for the bill over the last two years, including legislative testimony, meetings with key legislators and substantial background on social science research and the effectiveness of reforms in other states.
|Introducing the bill on the House floor is State Rep. W. Carlton Weddington.|
Since its founding in 2003, the Ohio Innocence Project has assisted in the cases of nine individuals who were serving time in prison who have since been released on grounds of innocence.
Research has shown that the most common cause of wrongful convictions is eyewitness testimony. It’s a factor in 75 percent of cases overturned later due to analysis of DNA evidence. The bill that was voted on includes key provisions to reduce the chances of ending up with faulty eyewitness testimony, including the double-blind requirement during police identification procedures with witnesses.
The bill will become law if Ohio Governor Ted Strickland signs it. Media reports have indicated that the governor strongly supports the bill.
If the bill becomes law, Ohio will become a model state concerning reforms to protect the innocent from wrongful conviction, according to Innocence Project Policy Advocate Rebecca Brown, who testified in favor of the bill at three hearings and tracks similar legislation across the country. While other states have adopted pieces of the innocence reform package contained in Senate Bill 77, no other state has adopted an omnibus bill of this magnitude that includes such comprehensive prescriptions to police practices.
The bill’s sponsor in the House, Rep. Tyrone Yates, called the bill, “One of the most important pieces of criminal justice legislation in this state in a century.”
Those who worked diligently to get the bill to this stage are too many to name, according to Godsey, but among those who have led the effort are:
- Policy Analyst Jodi Shorr from the Ohio Innocence Project
- Reporters Mike Wagner and Geoff Dutton of the Columbus Dispatch
- Ohio DNA exonerees Danny Brown, Clarence Elkins, Joseph Fears, Robert McClendon and Walter Smith
- Former Ohio Attorney General Jim Petro
- Policy advocates Rebecca Brown and Zeke Edwards of the Innocence Project’s national headquarters
- Barry Wilford and the Ohio Association of Criminal Defense Attorneys
- Ohio Public Defender Tim Young
- Ohio Senate legislative sponsors David Goodman and Bill Seitz
- Ohio House legislative sponsors Tyrone Yates, Connie Pillich and Carlton Weddington
- Ohio Rep. Robin Belcher and Ohio Rep. Bill Coley
- Detective Jim Trainum
- Former Chicago U.S. Attorney Tom Sullivan
- Cincinnati defense attorneys Michele Berry and Bill Gallagher
- Eyewitness identification reform advocates Jennifer Thompson and Ronald Cotton