Law Q: Innocent in jail

Was watching Law and Order: SVU last night, and in one episode it turned out that Stabler had wrongly jailed a man.
Another man then confessed to his crime.
Then that guy died, and it turned out they couldn’t let the innocent guy out of prison, as his statements were inadmissable.

So, they knew he was innocent, but the dead man’s statments were not admissable, so he stays in jail.

Could this really happen?

EDIT: In USA law.


Laws are the rules we follow to keep society running smoothly. No one has the power to choose not to play by those rules - even when the rules work out for the wrong. There are rules/laws to cover the above situation - where the rules otherwise fail - gubernatorial or presidential pardon - a process which has its own rules but can throw out most of the others.

Did not see the episode, but my take is that they’re wrong on the law. There are exceptions to the hearsay rule that probably would apply to the other man’s statements.

A statement that would tend to subject the speaker to criminal liability (like confessing to a crime) is generally admissible if the speaker is unavailable (e.g., dead). We trust the reliability of such a statement because we think it’s relatively unlikely that a person would falsely implicate himself in a crime.

If this were a homicide case, and if the other man had made his confession while actually on his deathbed, the statement could be admitted as a dying declaration. The reliability of his statment in this instance arises from an assumption that someone who thinks he is leaving this world will have less inclination to lie.

I’m working from the federal rules of evidence in setting forth the above answers. NY state rules of court may be slightly different, but the same general principles should be there.

You would seek habeas relief in either the state or federal courts. The standard is “actual innocence,” coupled with a showing as to why you could not have raised these facts at the initial trial. The rationale is that trials are (1) usually pretty good at sussing out the truth, and (2) expensive, so we don’t redo them absent very compelling reasons (as actual innocence, instead of, say, reasonable doubt, established by evidence not available to the accused at trial).

Uncorroborated confessions do not come anywhere near meeting this standard.

I believe L&O SVU deals exclusively with NY State (non-federal cases). NYS not only does not adopt the FRE in full, there are extremely numerous and significant distinctions from the FRE.

NY’s rule is that a dying declaration is only admissable in a criminal case a)in a homicide AND b)when the person making the declaration was the victim and his declaration contained information about who killed him. All other dying declarations are inadmissable as to criminal cases.

The former testimony of a dead party may only be admitted if it was offered against the same defendant with the motive to, and the opportunity to, cross examine the witness before he had died. NY Criminal Procedure Law §670.10.

Can you cross-examine yourself? Because in this case, the witness is the (potential) defendant, no?

That was a side note and another example of how much stricter NY is than the FRE regarding dead people’s statements. In this case the confession never became sworn testimony so the rule doesn’t apply.

As Kimmy-Gibbler noted, the uncorroborated confession is not enough to prove actual innocence for habeus review.

Confessed to who? Under what circumstances? Under oath?

It’s pretty clear that confessing to the prisoner in the next bunk isn’t going to be given any weight, nor a confession given to the guy who actually got convicted for it.

Even if the confessor doesn’t die, there is no guarantee that justice will be served and the innocent will go free. The right people have to believe it. Usually that means there must be some other evidence which supports the new confession.

Was the guy in jail or in prison? It’s an important distinction.

People in jail are awaiting trial (or serving time for minor crimes). They are assumed to be innocent and the state has the burden of proving their guilt.

People in prison have been convicted of a crime. The burden of proof is now on them. They don’t get released just because they can show they might not be guilty - they have to prove their innocence. This sounds harsh but it’s necessary. Otherwise every imprisoned criminal would find some reason to contest their conviction every week and the state would have to constantly be re-proving their guilt.