A bill to tighten the parameters of allowable expert testimony, and to make it easier for those convicted to try for exoneration based on false expert witness testimony, was placed on the Suspense file in the Senate Appropriations Committee on Tuesday.
Senate Bill 467, authored by Senator Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco), would expand what is included under false testimony and would count flawed scientific research and outdated research, namely, expert opinions ‘lacking valid methodology, research, peer-reviewed studies, or scientifically sound data’, from being included as valid testimony.
Those convicted because of false expert testimony would also have an easier path to exoneration, allowing those convicted to employ a writ of habeas corpus because of faulty testimony under the new parameters of SB 467.
SB 467 specifically states that “This bill would additionally allow a person to prosecute a writ of habeas corpus if expert opinion testimony that was material or probative on the issue of guilt or punishment was introduced and a reasonable dispute within the relevant scientific community as to the validity of the methods, theories, research, or studies upon which the expert based their opinion has developed or further developed after the person’s trial. The bill would also expand the definition of false evidence to include the opinions of experts that are undermined by scientific research that existed at the time of the expert’s testimony and opinions.”
Senator Wiener wrote the bill, also known as the End Wrongful Convictions Act, due to faulty and outdated forensic and scientific evidence from expert testimony helping lead to convictions in cases. He noted that some fields, such as fingerprint analysis, can be inaccurate, but are usually accepted by courts and juries due to the experts credentials and preconceived notions from crime and forensics tv shows.
“Expert witnesses’ faulty forensic and scientific evidence is the second leading cause of wrongful convictions,” said Senator Wiener earlier this month. “When science evolves, so should our standards for admissible scientific evidence in court. Innocent people should not be in prison because of outdated or faulty science. That’s why the End Wrongful Convictions Act will refine the standards for expert witness testimony in court, and will provide critical avenues for post-conviction relief. Even one innocent person in prison is a miscarriage of justice, and we will not stand for it.”
SB 467 has picked up steam this session, passing the Senate Public Safety Committee 5-0 last week before being placed on the suspense file by a 6-0 vote in the Appropriations Committee on Tuesday, albeit with one Senator, Brian Jones (R-Santee), not voting on the matter.
However, opposition to the bill is expected to increase in the general Senate and Assembly votes, with many lawmakers hinting at opposing the bill due to issues with the bill’s language and fears that it could severely limit expert witness testimony in the future.
“I know more than a few against it,” said “Dana,” a State Capitol staffer, to the Globe on Wednesday. “There’s a lot of worry what exactly would happen if the bill is passed. Lawmakers I’ve heard from have said that it’s not clear how many would try for exoneration, or what limits would be put into place on whether testimony is valid or invalid. Many like it but also want those specifics in so the court doesn’t have to interpret an extremely vague bill.”
SB 467 was placed on the suspense file shortly after being passed by the Appropriations Committee on Tuesday. It is currently unknown when the bill will be heard again in the coming months.