(New York, New York — April 1, 2019) Yesterday, the Discovery for Justice Reform Act passed the state legislature and will arguably become the strongest discovery law in the country once it is signed by Governor Cuomo. The passage of this groundbreaking law effectively repeals the “Blindfold Law,” so named because it shielded criminal defendants, including the innocent, from the very information that could prevent them from accepting plea deals or going to trial without ever knowing the evidence in their cases. Adoption of this critical legislation came as part of a comprehensive criminal justice reform package included in the New York State budget.
The passage of this legislation is the successful culmination of a collective effort by a diverse statewide coalition of organizations, including the Innocence Project and a number of legal organizations, advocacy organizations, people directly impacted by the system and labor groups, in addition to the tireless work of dedicated lawmakers, including Governor Cuomo, Assembly Member Joseph Lentol, Senator Jamaal Bailey, Senate Majority Leader Stewart-Cousins and Assembly Speaker Heastie.
Prior to the Discovery for Justice Reform Act, New York had one of the four worst discovery statutes in the country. Prosecutors were allowed to share evidence on their own timetable, sometimes right up until the start of trial or not at all if a plea deal was on the table. This meant that defense attorneys lacked access to key evidence—such as witness statements and police reports—early on in criminal cases, significantly hindering their ability to properly advise their clients and develop effective cases. In turn, defendants—often low income and of color—surrendered to the pressure to take unfair plea deals to avoid jail time while waiting for prosecutors to turn over evidence, or harsh prison sentences that could ensue from unfavorable verdicts at trial—all without knowing whether prosecutors even possessed incriminating evidence.
Now, New York will join the majority of states across the country—from New Jersey to Texas—that have open discovery rules which require prosecutors to turn over critical evidence much earlier in the process.
“The blindfold has at long last been lifted, enabling a massive renovation of the pretrial system. Too many wrongful convictions in New York had been enabled by a system that operated in the dark. No longer will innocent criminal defendants be forced into the irrational choice of pleading guilty and spending years behind bars for crimes they did not commit,” said Innocence Project Director of Policy Rebecca Brown. “This reform also directly addresses much of the racial injustice that is baked into and impacts New York’s criminal process. Today is a historic day, and we are extraordinarily grateful to the governor and the legislature, including Assemblyman Lentol and Senator Bailey, and people impacted by the criminal justice system, who tirelessly advocated for this legislation.”