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MT bills to help wrongfully convicted get hearing


Big Sky Connection

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Eric Tegethoff

January 28, 2019

HELENA, Montana - Two bills designed to prevent wrongful convictions and defend the people accused are scheduled for a hearing in the Montana Legislature on Tuesday. 

Testifying at the Senate Judiciary Committee in support of these bills will be Cody Marble and Richard Burkhart, who spent a combined 30 years in prison for crimes they didn't commit. 

Senate Bill 156 would prevent convictions based on false, incentivized witness testimony, which put both Marble and Burkhart behind bars. 

Michelle Feldman, state campaigns director for the Innocence Project, explains what an incentivized witness is.

"Somebody who typically expects to get leniency in their own cases or reduced sentencing, dismissed charges - that kind of thing, in exchange for testifying against a defendant," she explains. "And because they get something in exchange for their testimony, there's a really strong motivation for them to lie."

Feldman says this is one of the leading causes of wrongful convictions nationwide. 

One of the fixes in SB 156 would require pretrial hearings on a witness's reliability. The other bill, SB 172, would make it easier for people who have been convicted to get access to courts if they have new evidence in their cases.

One factor that stands out about both bills is their bipartisan backing. 

Along with Marble and Burkhart, progressive and conservative criminal justice groups will be testifying in support. 

Feldman says it's in everyone's interest to prevent and address mistakes in the justice system.

"It's not just harmful to the innocent person and their family when there's a wrongful conviction, but it's harmful to the victim of the crime, it's harmful to potential victims if the real perpetrator is out and it's harmful to taxpayers," she points out. "It's a waste of resources to keep an innocent person in prison."

SB 156 is sponsored by Sen. Roger Webb, Republican from Billings. SB 172 is sponsored by Sen. Margie MacDonald, a Democrat also from Billings.



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