LAW & PUBLIC SAFETY

How New Jersey is working to prevent, overturn wrongful convictions

BY Joanna Gagis, Producer/Correspondent |

New Jersey is taking action to ensure that the injustice of wrongful convictions happens less frequently.

In April, New Jersey became the first state to create a Conviction Review Unit under an attorney general that will review claims of wrongful convictions. The unit will prioritize people already in prison and only take the cases of those that claim innocence — not just procedural errors — after all other appeals and post-conviction petitions have been exhausted.

The Innocence Project, a nonprofit that works to exonerate wrongly convicted individuals, estimates between 1% and 4% of people convicted of crimes are actually innocent. Wrongful convictions can happen for a variety of reasons: misidentification by eye witnesses, false confessions or even misconduct by the authorities.

Michelle Feldman, state campaigns director at the Innocence Project, says New Jersey could do more to prevent wrongful convictions.

“A lot of states are starting to adopt some safeguards against false testimony from jailhouse witnesses, and we’re hopeful that New Jersey will do that,” said Feldman.

The state is trying to prevent cases like that of Brian Banks.

In the early 2000s, the football star was wrongfully accused of kidnapping and rape by a fellow high school student and subsequently convicted after his attorney encouraged him to take a plea deal. The conviction was eventually overturned, but Banks’ experience exposed major injustices in the legal system.

“In my case, I was told that it would be best that I didn’t take this to trial and face it all because I was a big, black teenager,” said Banks. “To receive that type of legal advice, and for my lawyer to even feel like that should be something to be shared, it says a lot about our society and where our court system is.”

New Jersey has a compensation law that pays $50,000 for each year an innocent person served in prison, but it excludes those who pleaded guilty. The Innocence Project says about 10% of those who are exonerated pleaded guilty to crimes they didn’t commit. They want to see the compensation law expanded to include all wrongfully incarcerated people.