LAW & PUBLIC SAFETY

Legislator calls to stop wrongful convictions

BY Michael Hill, Correspondent |

Convicted of sexual assault as a Newark school teacher, A.J. Nash spent 10 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit.

“I thought justice was mad when they sent me to prison. There was no way in the world I was supposed to be convicted,” said the exonoree. “I became a paralegal and took that opportunity to take bad energy and redirected it to positive energy.”

Nash helped others behind bars while helping himself, discovering six years into his sentence that a key trial witness gave testimony in a civil lawsuit that contradicted the testimony that landed Nash in prison.

From the time the rebuttal witness came clean in a civil lawsuit, until the time Nash got out, four years had expired.

“Yes, that’s why this commission has to be created,” he said.

Nash stood with advocates and lawmakers to say the Garden State must create the New Jersey Innocence Study and Review Commission to review cases and develop reforms to prevent wrongful convictions.

Republican Sen. Joe Pennacchio wrote the bipartisan bill, introduced it in February, and says with the budget debate behind lawmakers, now’s the time for hearings and passage.

“Incarceration of the innocent is a tragedy which must be avoided. Our Constitution and our judicial safeguards try to make such instances rare. However, the search for justice should show no bounds,” said Pennacchio.

Richard Smith is the warden at the Cumberland County Department of Corrections and the president of the New Jersey NAACP.

“Not only do innocent commissions help to identify weaknesses in the criminal justice system and all for workable improvements, but also protects society by helping to ensure that actual perpetrators are expeditiously identified, arrested and brought to trial. Everyone, everyone color not withstanding, has an interest in preventing wrongful convictions,” said Smith.

North Carolina created a post-conviction commission in 2006. As of June, it’s lead to judges exonerating 10 people.

Among the unanswered questions for a potential New Jersey commission, would it have subpoena powers, which cases would it review and would the nine appointed members receive any pay?

Nash says resolve all issues because too many innocent people are paying with their lives.

“Had this been created, had this been in place, I would not have spent 10 years in prison,” said Nash.