Thursday, January 05, 2012

More progress needed

The following editorial was published by the Buffalo News on January 4, 2012.

New York is making progress -- slowly -- on the problem of wrongful convictions, but as national figures show, the need to act remains great.

A year-end report by the Innocence Project, based in New York City, shows that it helped exonerate seven people this year -- people who had been convicted of crimes they did not commit. It's a disturbing-enough number, but it doesn't tell the whole story.

A larger umbrella group to which the Innocence Project belongs -- the Innocence Network -- reports a total of 21 exonerations this year. These are people who, in many cases, had the prime of their lives stolen away. There can be no doubt that others languish in prison, hoping for their own salvation.

None of the 21 came from New York in 2011, but the Innocence Project counts 27 cases in which it has helped to win exonerations in this state. Three of those exonerations occurred last year and another one in 2009. New York remains a full partner in the national shame of wrongful conviction.

Western New Yorkers are familiar with this issue. Anthony Capozzi of Buffalo served 21 years in prison for rapes he did not commit. While he was in prison, the real rapist, Altemio Sanchez -- now unmasked as the Bike Path Killer -- began murdering women in Western New York.

Shortly after Capozzi's exoneration, the case against Lynn Dejac-Peters fell apart. She had served nearly 14 years in prison for a crime she did not commit: murdering her own daughter. The real killer remains unidentified.

New York has begun moving against the factors associated with wrongful conviction, including the No. 1 cause, witness misidentification, and also the strange but true phenomenon of false confession. The Innocence Project reports that in about 25 percent of cases where DNA evidence later exonerated the person who was convicted, innocent defendants "made incriminating statements, delivered outright confessions or pled guilty."

New York State's chief judge, Jonathan Lippman, has convened a permanent task force to look into these issues, and it has already made recommendations regarding witness identification procedures and the worthwhile, but not primary, issue of expanding the state's DNA databank.

Soon it will recommend videotaping interrogations to guard against false confessions, which can occur when police inadvertently feed an innocent suspect details of the crime that the perpetrator would know.

But if New York is moving, it is doing so slowly. Thus far, all the factors that helped create the conditions for wrongful conviction remain in force in courtrooms across the state. Other states with terrible records of wrongful conviction, including Texas and California, have moved more swiftly to deal with these issues.

It is good that the state is taking action, of course, but the Legislature needs to formalize issues such as witness identification procedures and videotaping of interrogations. Some legislators will balk at that, fearing that adversaries will somehow paint them as soft on crime. It will be a bad rap, and lawmakers need to realize that.

Nailing the right person is fundamental to any decent conception of law and order. It guards the reputation of the justice system and ensures that criminals are not left on the streets while innocent people rot in prison.

Lippman's committee, called the New York State Justice Task Force, is composed of members from all aspects of the criminal justice system, including police and prosecutors. Thus, its recommendations should give political cover to those lawmakers who need it. But lawmakers have to act. New York does not need to be putting more innocent people in prison while advocates labor to free those who are already trapped there.

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