Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Innocence Commission Act goes to the PA Senate floor

At yesterday's PA Senate Judiciary Committee meeting, the committee sent Senate Bill 1069, the Innocence Commission Act, to the full Senate. The bill went through the committee without debate and without opposition. Not even Senator Jeff Piccola (R-Dauphin) opposed it.

So the bill is on the floor of the Senate, and supporters are cautiously optimistic. We might have some work to do to get it through the House, though. The chair of the House Judiciary Committee, Rep. Dennis O'Brien (R-Philadelphia), is reportedly a waterboy for the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association.

To be fair, no one in the House or at the PDAA has publicly opposed the bill, but you know how politics works, especially in Harrisburg. A bill can go to a committee and disappear into a vast, dark black hole.

This bill has fast-tracked. It was introduced on January 23. Hearings were held on January 30. And yesterday it hit the Senate floor. This has been amazing to watch.

At the committee hearings on January 30, all of the witnesses testified in favor of the bill. Nick Yarris, who spent 21 years on PA's death row before DNA evidence cleared him in 2004, was the first witness and urged the legislature not only to pass this bill but also to impose a moratium on the death penalty.

"Any real look at innocence in Pennsylvania must start with a moratorium," Nick said.

Nick also testified that he believes there are more innocent people among the state's 224 death row prisoners, and he named two: Walter Ogrod and Ernest Simmons.

Other witnesses included exonerees Thomas Doswell and Vincent Moto and Stephen Saloom, Policy Director of the Innocence Project.

"Nobody wins when an innocent person is convicted," Saloom said.

"The innocence commission crafted by this bill has the potential to be one of the nation's best. It has the potential to make Pennsylvania a model."


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