Wrongfully Convicted Virginians Now Have Chance to Prove Innocence Due to Amendments to Writ of Actual Innocence
(1) “Removing the one-writ limit: Previously, people were limited to filing” only one petition for a writ of actual innocence based on non-biological evidence, even when new evidence of innocence was later discovered.
(2) “Removing the bar on guilty pleas: Even though 1 in 10” (10%) of all DNA exonerees had pleaded “guilty to crimes they did not commit,” Virginia’s law did not permit those who had pleaded guilty to even petition for a writ of actual innocence.
(3) “Creating a reasonable burden of proof.” The law previously required the petitioner to establish by “clear and convincing evidence” that no rational juror would have found guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Now the burden of proof is changed to “a preponderance of the evidence.”
Parolee Darnell Phillips testified before the legislature on the need to amend the law. In 1990, Phillips was convicted of raping a 10-year-old girl in Virginia Beach. In 2001, new DNA testing procedures on a hair excluded Phillips as the perpetrator, but his petition was rejected on procedural grounds. More than 10 years later, DNA testing on additional items recovered by the Virginia Beach Police Department also excluded Phillips. And the victim stated she had not actually been able to identify her attacker but that she had identified Phillips only because of lies told to her by police. In spite of this compelling evidence, the Supreme Court of Virginia denied Phillips’ petition for a writ of actual innocence because the DNA testing had been done at a private laboratory, and the Court did not believe the evidence met the high standard of “clear and convincing” proof of innocence. Phillips ultimately served 27 years in prison before being paroled.
“This is a seismic shift for exonerating innocent Virginians,” said Shawn Armburst, executive director of the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project. “Many of our clients have been denied justice for so long under these laws, and now they can finally live up to their potential to overturn wrongful convictions and reveal the truth.”