VOCAL-NY Fights for Legal System Reforms to Ensure Speedy Trial for Defendants, Reported by The Indypendent

Posted on March 4, 2019

Prisoner’s Dilemma: NY’s Blindfold Law Keeps the Truth in the Dark

Originally Published in The Indypendent on March 4, 2019
Written by Peter Rugh

It was July 17, 2015, when the cops took Darryl Herring away. It was Dec. 16, 2016 when he was let go. He’d just spent 18 months of his life on New York City’s notoriously violent prison island. His trial lasted two days — into court on Friday, released from custody on Monday. Case dismissed. A pair of bills before the New York State legislature would help prevent what happened to Herring and continues to happen to thousands like him. One would repeal the state’s “blindfold law,” which allows prosecutors to withhold evidence until the start of a trial. Another would eliminate pretrial detention for all but the most violent crimes.

As things stand, the legal system creates a near-impossible situation for defendants like Herring to navigate. First, a judge and prosecutor set bail, often a prohibitively large sum. Then it’s off to jail, where defendants can wait months or even years before receiving their day in court and seeing evidence against them. The way the legal system now works is not to determine a defendant’s innocence or guilt, but to crack them before a judge or jury can make that determination. “People have an idea about courts being a place where truth is resolved and justice prevails, and that is just not the case,” says Nick Encalada-Malinowski, Civil Rights Campaign director at VOCAL-NY — part of a coalition pressuring Albany to overhaul its cash bail and discovery laws.

New York State’s pretrial detention rate is the fourth highest in the country. In New York City, just one percent go to trial. To get there can take such remarkable resolve that it strains the notion of the right to due process. The current version of the bill would give defendants and their attorneys access to the state’s evidence within 15 days of arraignment. Even that is too long, says VOCAL’s Encalada-Malinowski. “To us, it is a fundamental idea that prosecutors should have some burden to produce some evidence at the very first [court] date. Like you can’t just bring somebody in, make an accusation, ruin their life and then say, ‘Sorry, we had the wrong person.’”

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