Sunday, August 10, 2008

Guest Shot: Philadelphia Inquirer on Wrongful Convictions

This editorial was published in the Philadelphia Inquirer on August 10, 2008.

Editorial: Wrongful Convictions The case against the investigators

It happens too often. Innocent people are convicted and spend years in prison because of faulty eyewitness identification, sloppy or improper police work, and the lack of DNA testing. Take the case of Darrell Edwards. He was convicted of murder in a New Jersey state court in 1999 - after four trials and the acquittal of a co-defendant. Four bites at the apple is a good indication that prosecutors had a shaky case from the start.

Now, new evidence has emerged that raises the possibility that Evans was wrongfully convicted - or worse, may have been railroaded. Edwards' attorneys at the Innocence Project are seeking a fifth trial. He deserves it.

Edwards' attorneys claim DNA testing on the gun and on a sweatshirt believed to belong to the shooter excludes their client. His attorneys have also produced evidence that undermines a key witness, and say police ignored another lead that could have helped find the killer.

The issues raised by Edwards' attorneys are part of a broader pattern that routinely emerges in wrongful conviction cases.

Just last week, DNA helped exonerate a Dallas man who was convicted of 11 sex crimes and spent 25 years in prison.

Last month, the Alabama Supreme Court granted a last-minute reprieve to a man scheduled to be executed after another convicted murderer stepped forward with an affidavit claiming he was the killer.

In June, prosecutors in New York decided not to re-try a man who was released after spending 17 years in prison for the murder of his parents - following a disputed confession and new evidence.

Edwards was convicted of the 1995 execution-style shooting of a drug dealer in Newark. It took three years for the case to go to trial. The first two ended in mistrials, and the third ended with a hung jury that acquitted a co-defendant.

At his fourth trial, Edwards was convicted, due in large part to dubious eyewitness testimony.

The key witness fingered Edwards although she was sitting on her porch almost the length of a football field away from the murder scene. New scientific analysis offered by Edwards' attorneys argues that the witness couldn't clearly see the killer at night from her porch 271 feet away.

In addition, the witness wasn't wearing her prescription glasses at the time, and now says in an affidavit that on the night of the murder she had been drinking and was high on heroin.

More alarming, she added that when she identified Edwards in a photo lineup she was "just guessing." She says a police investigator pointed to Edwards, and said that another witness had picked him out - thus improperly influencing her decision.

Two other witnesses who were closer to the shooting both told police Edwards wasn't the shooter. At Edwards' third trial, the government produced an unsigned statement from one of the witnesses saying he wasn't sure that Edwards was the shooter. The witness now denies knowing about this statement and affirmed in an affidavit that Edwards wasn't involved in the shooting.

Edwards' attorneys say police also ignored evidence from a Drug Enforcement Administration informant who linked the murder to a drug trafficking ring out of Atlanta, which had no ties to Edwards.

At a minimum, Edwards deserves a new trial. And if he's found to have been wrongfully convicted, someone should investigate the investigators.

More broadly, all police and prosecutors need to enhance policies and procedures with an eye toward avoiding wrongful convictions.

No comments: