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Should victims of wrongful convictions be denied damages simply because of a false confession?

In New York, victims of wrongful convictions may be able to seek damages from the state if they serve time in prison for a crime they did not commit. However, it is important to remember that there are several limitations that apply.

For instance, not only must victims be able to show they did not commit the crime, but they must also be able to prove other factors, including that they, by their own conduct, did not "cause or bring about" their conviction.

While New York statutory law does not specifically list what actions may qualify as causing or bringing about a conviction, some examples provided in case law include situations in which the wrongfully convicted individual:

  • Attempts to induce, or convinces, a witness to give false testimony
  • Attempts to suppress evidence
  • Removes evidence
  • Conceals the guilt of another
  • Provides police with a false alibi

What about false confessions and pleas?

Unfortunately, another situation in which victims of wrongful convictions may not be able to seek damages is when they provide police with an uncoerced confession of guilt. In fact, one New York case classified a confession as causing or bringing about a conviction, even though it was subsequently shown to be false and illegally obtained -- meaning the victim was not able to seek damages.

In another New York case, the court denied damages despite the fact that the victim was advised by the court that he "would not be getting closer to the minimum [sentence], but closer to the maximum" if he didn't plead guilty and instead proceeding to trial.

When making its decision, the court determined that it is not coercive for a court to tell a defendant that it will impose a sentence close to the maximum available under the law. However, once could easily see how an individual may feel pressured to take a plea in such circumstances, especially when facing a much harsher sentence if they don't.

Many people consider it unfair to preclude a wrongful conviction victim from seeking compensation simply because they may have pled guilty, especially if the plea was simply entered to avoid a harsher sentence. This is one reason why legislation has been proposed that may rectify this potential problem. We will write more about this legislation later in the week, so we encourage you to visit are blog again if you would like to learn more.

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