The Court of Appeals puts a narrow spin on Washington's Wrongly Convicted Persons Act

Newton v. State, No. 47066-7-II (Wash. Ct. App. Mar. 15, 2016).

This seems to be the first published decision interpreting Washington’s Wrongly Convicted Persons Act, enacted less than three years ago. Under this law, when a conviction is vacated or reversed “on the basis of significant new exculpatory information,” the wrongly convicted person may sue the state for determinate damages: $50,000 for every year spent in jail or prison, and $25,000 per year for every year on parole or under supervision. To get this relief—indeed, even to request this relief—the claimant has to waive all other claims available to him. In some ways, this is a pretty limited statute. 

Here, the Washington Court of Appeals, on direct appeal, reversed Isaiah Newton’s burglary conviction for insufficient evidence. Is an appellate opinion reversing a conviction “significant new exculpatory information” under the Wrongly Convicted Persons Act? Newton, through this separate action, argues that an appellate opinion reversing for insufficient evidence fits every word of this phrase. It’s self-evidently “significant,” “new,” and “exculpatory,” and it also fits the dictionary definition of “information,” in that it’s “knowledge communicated by others.”

The Court of Appeals believes that this reading makes nonsense of the words that precede “significant new exculpatory information.” If an appellate opinion were itself “significant new exculpatory information,” how could a conviction be vacated or reversed “on the basis” of that information? “An appellate reversal,” says the Court of Appeals, “cannot be based on itself.” The Court of Appeals also worries that Newton’s position would make “every reversal of a conviction” grounds for seeking relief under the Wrongly Convicted Persons Act.

I’m not sure I agree. The Court of Appeals’ reasoning shows that an appellate judgment—the act of reversing or vacating a conviction—cannot itself be “significant new exculpatory information.” But I don’t take that to be Newton’s argument. Newton appears to be arguing that the reasoning of an appellate opinion can be “significant new exculpatory information.” It’s on the basis of that reasoning that a conviction may be reversed or vacated. As for the Court of Appeals’ worry that every reversal could lead to a suit under the new law, that’s a bit overstated. Under Newton’s argument, only reversals for insufficiency of the evidence could themselves be significant new exculpatory information. A reversal for, say, a prosecutor’s inappropriate closing argument doesn’t tend to exculpate the defendant—it just makes the conviction procedurally improper. 

The Wrongly Convicted Persons Act uses rather broad language: “significant new exculpatory information.” (As I noted above, though, it twins that broad language with a pretty narrow remedy.) Perhaps the Legislature didn’t anticipate the consequences of that language—but that’s a matter for the Legislature itself to correct.