Bill to help keep the innocent out of prison vetoed

Caramad Conley's story in Sunday's San Francisco Examiner (“Free man returns to new world”) was a sad one, and one that was made even sadder when Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed my Assembly Bill 885 on the same day.

It's this simple: Brown vetoed a bill that would have helped keep innocent people out of prison.

California has seen, in the words of a high-ranking appellate court judge, “an epidemic” of prosecutor misconduct where district attorneys withhold evidence from defense counsel that would be relevant to the innocence of the accused.

That's a fancy of way of expressing the issue, but in practice, the problem looks like Caramad Conley or Obie Anthony. The prosecutor in Anthony's trial withheld witness identification of suspects that would likely have kept him out of prison had it been turned over in a timely manner.

<p>Instead, Anthony spent 17 years in prison, working to prove his innocence. (Think about what you were doing, or what you hope to do, in your 20s and 30s.) When he had spent half his life behind bars, he was finally released, and it took more years for a court to find him factually innocent.

I wanted to find a way to stop this from happening. The bill that went to the governor's desk was very modest. It would have merely allowed judges — when they determined intentional withholding had taken place — to give juries an instruction that they may consider that fact when weighing evidence.

But prosecutors — the same people who have no qualms about putting people away for stealing a few DVDs — went ballistic at the thought that they might face that modest consequence for intentionally — I repeat, intentionally — concealing evidence.

And that's who the governor listened to.

In his veto message, he said judges have “an array of remedies” already.

Really? What remedy did the judge provide Obie Anthony? A 24-hour continuance. That's not long enough to totally research and revise a defense. Currently, prosecutors don't fear the remedies because they either aren't used or don't hurt them.

Brown also said AB 885 would be counter to current practice. However, Barry Scheck — who co-founded the Innocence Project to keep innocent people from being executed — has pointed out that California is the only state in the country that doesn't have any sanction for prosecutors. Even AB 885 would be more lenient than what others have.

My heart goes out to Obie Anthony, who worked hard to try to keep what happened to him from happening to others. He had high hopes for this law and lobbied hard for it.

It also goes out to those — mostly men of color — who still languish in innocence behind bars. It is heartbreaking for them to see the governor ignore what is happening to them or, worse, paper it over with the false promise that existing rules will suffice.

Based on what he has and has not signed this year, this is a governor who seems to care more about the right of a dog to visit a restaurant than the right of an innocent defendant to a fair trial.

Though I won't be around to introduce this bill next year, I know it will be back, and I will continue to support it in any way I can.

Tom Ammiano is a state assemblyman whose 17th District covers San Francisco.

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