The following editorial was published by the Hartford Courant on April 18, 2014.
Kenneth Ireland lost the years when he might have gone to college, started a career, begun a family. They were taken from him when he was jailed for 21 years for a rape and murder that he didn't commit. He was exonerated in 2009 when DNA testing led authorities to another man, who was convicted of the crime.
In addition to Mr. Ireland's almost incalculable personal loss, there will be a bill for the taxpayers. As The Courant's Alaine Griffin reported, state officials announced last week they will not fight his efforts to seek $5.5 million to $8 million in compensation for years he lost in prison.
Mr. Ireland's is one of several wrongful convictions that have come to light in recent years. The cases of James Tillman, Miguel Roman and Scott Lewis also made headlines, as has the pending case of Richard Lapointe. The loss of freedom, family, reputation and career is cruel, and the financial damage to the state is not insignificant.
Is there a way to improve the system, to lessen the chances of another Kenneth Ireland case?
Yale political science professor David Cameron thinks so. Mr. Cameron, who has closely followed many of these cases, proposes a statewide conviction integrity unit that would examine convictions in cases in which there is suspicion of official misconduct, perjury by unreliable witnesses or other such issues. A number of major cities across the country have created such units.
Chief States Attorney Kevin Kane sees merit in the idea, but believes it needs to be part of a broader reform effort.
Mr. Kane said his office is already doing some of the things an integrity unit would do. He said his office is in the midst of a multi-year review of convictions in which DNA testing might result in exoneration, and also has an informal partnership with The Connecticut Innocence Project, which helped free Mr. Ireland, to review questionable cases.
The key would be to get to such cases sooner so that the next Kenneth Ireland doesn't spend 21 years behind bars. Indeed, Mr. Kane said, many problematic cases could be stopped before they happen with more thorough review of arrest warrant applications. This, Mr. Kane said, would require a shift in resources — one he would welcome.
The habeas corpus system is supposed to function as a conviction integrity unit; it allows a person to challenge the validity of a conviction or sentence.
The problem, as Mr. Kane observed several years ago, is that more than 600 habeas petitions are filed by inmates each year, clogging the system. The vast majority of these are shots in the dark, overwhelmingly without merit. But prosecutors and other court personnel have to go through all of them, sometimes going to mini-trials, to be sure the valid ones get a hearing.
Though Mr. Kane has won modest reforms, inmates are still filing habeas petitions "like crazy." They cost the state millions of dollars a year.
Also, with the closing of mental hospitals decades ago, the criminal justice system has become, for many, the de facto mental health system. The courts are jammed with chronic low-level offenders, many of whom are mentally ill. It is a national shame that America still puts such people in prisons. There are some programs around the state that aim to divert such people to treatment; if this can be expanded, more attention can be paid to the rest of the system.
Criminal appeals are of limited value in some cases because they review aspects of the trial, not the case's fundamental credibility. There ought to be a conviction integrity unit, and there ought to be the broad reform to make it possible.
There are review panels to discuss hospital deaths, police shootings, train crashes. There ought to be one for major criminal convictions.