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State Open Doors Wider to Innocence Claims

As more states grapple with the reliability of past expert testimony in criminal cases and loosen restrictions on making innocence claims for long-incarcerated people, more exonerations are making their way through systems like Tennessee's, which just released a man who served more than 20 years for a murder that a court found he didn't commit, the Wall Street Journal reports. In several Tennessee cases, judges have ruled that it isn’t too late for inmates to come back to court armed with new scientific evidence that they think demonstrates their innocence. The trend shows states' growing willingness to second-guess their systems of justice, advocates say. “It’s an issue I think is starting to get some attention where it didn’t before,” said Marissa Bluestine, assistant director at the Quattrone Center for the Fair Administration of Justice at the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School.

In the latest Tennessee case, Wayne Burgess, 60 years old, was convicted in 1999 and sentenced to life in prison for the death of his then-girlfriend’s 1-year-old daughter in Pulaski, Tenn. The prosecution cited a report from a since-discredited medical examiner who concluded the girl was injured during the time she was in Burgess’s care. The nonprofit Tennessee Innocence Project last year asked the state’s current chief medical examiner, Dr. Adele Lewis, to examine the medical report from decades ago. She concluded the child had suffered the fatal internal injury at some earlier period before Burgess was with the girl. Last month, Judge David L. Allen reopened the case and tossed the murder conviction. “New scientific evidence proves that it is not medically possible that Mr. Burgess committed the crime for which he was convicted,” the judge wrote. On Tuesday, he released Burgess without bond while the state decides whether to retry the case.


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