Exculpatory evidence is any piece of evidence that gives favor to the accused party in a criminal case. This evidence, if strong enough, could exonerate the defendant from any guilt. But, what happens when powerful exculpatory evidence is uncovered after an innocent person has already been wrongfully convicted of a crime that they did not commit? That depends on a number of factors. One of these factors, unfortunately, can include how much time has passed.
A statute of limitations is a law that dictates the amount of time following some event within which legal proceedings may be initiated. In the case of presenting new evidence to exonerate a wrongfully convicted person, depending on the state that person lives in, there may be a time limit on presenting that new exculpatory evidence. In Florida, under rule 3.850 of the Florida Rules of Criminal Procedure you only have two years following a sentencing to file a Motion to Vacate Sentence based on, for example, a claim of ineffective assistance of counsel. However, there are exceptions to that time limit, an important one being newly discovered evidence. This could include a witness recanting their testimony, a Brady violation like when the prosecution withholds evidence from the defense that could be favorable to the defendant, or new DNA results. The request for DNA testing, under rule 3.853, has no time limitations in the state of Florida.
In comparison to some other states, Florida’s rules might seem very fair. In Alabama, for example, those convicted of a capital crime can apply for DNA testing if it was not done at their original trial but that request must be made within a year of their conviction. It should not be assumed that prisoners are fully aware of these statutes and the workings of the legal system as a whole as the general public typically is not. Placing that time limit on DNA testing can leave an innocent person in prison not knowing they need to file that motion within a certain period of time. There are also other constraints on DNA testing that differ among states like only allowing DNA testing for death row inmates, not allowing DNA testing to inmates who had confessed, or those who entered a guilty plea. All of these restrictions put a limit on true justice.
While states like Florida that do not time bar the right to DNA testing and offer various exceptions to their two year time limit seem very fair in comparison to many other states, it should be called into question whether any restrictions should exist at all. It is fair to say that dragging out court cases for years and giving unlimited appeals would cost an unreasonable amount of time and resources for the criminal justice system and the courts. But it is also quite fair to say that an innocent person sitting in prison for a crime that they did not commit should not simply run out of time to prove their innocence. If a person is truly innocent and suffering the awful punishment of imprisonment for actions they never committed there should always be an option for them to try to prove their innocence. At the very least, no states should place a time restraint on the testing of DNA, one of the most powerful pieces of evidence the accused can have.
One state showed last month that they may agree with this notion. On Monday March 12, 2018 the Governor of Wyoming signed a bill into law that allows wrongfully convicted people to introduce non-DNA evidence at any point following their convictions. This contrasts their previous window of two years to introduce non-DNA evidence and an unlimited amount of time to introduce DNA evidence. Hopefully this new law will serve as an example for the rest of the country to allow for more options for the wrongfully convicted.
It is important to remember that when a person is wrongfully convicted of a crime, that a criminal is left out on the street. When options for exoneration are limited, especially DNA evidence that has the potential to definitively exonerate someone and point directly to a true guilty party, it allows for a criminal to continue to walk free. The potential for tedious and costly wastes of time and resources in the court system is a valid concern. But, it is hard to say that these costs are more important than an innocent person’s right to prove their innocence. There should be no time limit on innocence.