A bill that would greatly raise the standards for evaluating expert testimony and forensics in courts, as well as make it easier for those convicted to try for exoneration based on false expert witness testimony, was passed 30-3 by the Senate on Wednesday.
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(D-San Francisco), would expand what is included under false testimony and would count flawed scientific research and outdated research, namely, expert opinions ‘lacking valid methodology, research, peer-reviewed studies, or scientifically sound data’, from being included as valid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.”
The bill, also known as the End Wrongful Convictions Act, quickly passed through several Senate committees earlier this month before being placed on the suspense file. While many had expected it to stay there for some time to shore up more support, it turned back around a day later and unanimously passed the Senate Appropriations Committee. This led to the Senate vote on Wednesday, passing 30-3 with a strong bipartisan majority, with only a few Republicans voting against SB 467.
SB 467 passes Senate
Senator Wiener maintained on Wednesday that the bill would help reduce the number of wrongful convictions as well as help reduce the amount of preconceived notions that juries and courts have for forensic witnesses and testimony due to television and other media.
“Experts testifying in our courts need to rely on sound science and logic, or their testimony should not be admissible,” said Senator Wiener in a statement on Wednesday. “Innocent people’s lives depend on the standards we set in our courts. Faulty forensic science is a major reason that people are wrongfully convicted of crimes – and that is a moral stain on our state. The End Wrongful Convictions Act will help make our state more fair and just.”
Dissenting Senators, however, pointed out that the bill would likely only add to the reduction of criminal penalties in the state and that another way is needed to keep expert testimony fact-based and on track to reduce the number of wrongful convictions
“These are just more attempts to erode the justice system to ensure that justice for the victims of crimes do not see justice done, that individuals who have committed crimes have more venues to escape any consequences for their behaviors,” said Senator Jim Nielsen (R-Red Bluff) after the vote on Wednesday.
Others noted on Wednesday that SB 467 defied the odds and was passed with a near-majority, and that that success may not be replicated in the Assembly.
“A lot of the worry people had went away after it came back from the suspense file,” said “Dana,” a State Capitol staffer, to the Globe on Wednesday. “The bill had one small amendment, which along with convincing from supporters, really turned the tide.”
“But now it goes to the Assembly, which has double the number of people. They also tend to get to the nit and gritty of their constituents concerns, so a lot of wrongfully convicted people as well as a lot of families who had people put away because of expert testimony will be calling or e-mailing or texting or writing in about this. The Assembly won’t be as easy.”
SB 467 is due to go to the Assembly in the coming days.
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