The greatest shortcoming in the American system of criminal justice is its propensity to wrongfully convict individuals of serious crimes and then, once evidence surfaces that suggests a wrongful conviction, refuse to reopen the investigation.
In recent years, as prosecutors have become increasingly aware of the frequency and various causes of wrongful convictions, some have created a conviction integrity unit to reexamine the evidence in cases in which there’s good reason to believe a wrongful conviction occurred because of mistakes in the initial investigation, eyewitness misidentifications, perjury of witnesses, and/or official misconduct.
Since 2007, such units have been created in more than a dozen cities and counties across the country — first in Dallas and then in Chicago and Cook County, San Jose and Santa Clara County, California, Manhattan and Brooklyn in New York, Detroit and Wayne County, Denver and, most recently, Philadelphia and Cleveland.
In most of the cases reviewed, the convictions have remained in place. Nevertheless, the re-examinations have resulted in the dismissal of 33 convictions in Dallas, four in Manhattan and seven thus far in Brooklyn.
There are instances in which the evidence of actual innocence that surfaces after a conviction is so persuasive that prosecutors will ask a court to throw out a conviction.
The most authoritative proof of actual innocence is, of course, the presence at the scene or on the victim of the DNA of someone other than the person convicted of the crime. The New York-based Innocence Project reports that, since 1989, 316 wrongful convictions have been thrown out because of DNA evidence that conclusively tied someone other than the person convicted for the crime. In Connecticut, three such exonerations have occurred over the past eight years.
But those cases are a proverbial drop in the large bucket of wrongful convictions that have occurred over that 25-year period, both in the U.S. and in Connecticut. There are some cases in which, although there is some DNA evidence that points to someone else as the perpetrator, that evidence doesn’t constitute proof of actual innocence.
And there are many, many others in which there is no DNA evidence at all. Indeed, experts estimate that in roughly 95 percent of all convictions for serious felonies there’s no DNA evidence at all.
For those cases, the only recourse of the wrongfully convicted is a habeas petition for a new trial or release on the grounds of actual innocence. But as we have seen, the habeas process in Connecticut is deeply flawed: The appeals drag on for years, the Superior Court judges who hear them often seem to be unschooled in criminal law and make egregious errors in interpreting evidence, and the prosecutors care only about defending their convictions.
Take, for example, the case of Richard Lapointe. Lapointe was convicted and sentenced to life without parole in 1992 for the sexual assault and murder of Bernice Martin, his wife’s 88-year-old grandmother, in Manchester in 1987.
In 2011, a habeas judge rejected his appeal for a new trial. The Appellate Court reversed the judge a year later and ordered a new trial on the grounds that the state’s failure to turn over a detective’s notes deprived him of a fair trial. The notes suggested the fire set by the murderer was set when Lapointe was home with his wife and son.
It also ruled that his first habeas lawyer provided ineffective assistance by failing to raise the state’s suppression of the notes as an issue. The state appealed the reversal to the state Supreme Court last year and we now await, 22 years after his original conviction, a decision whether Lapointe will receive a new trial.
And yet there has been evidence for some time that suggests that someone other than Lapointe committed the crime. A woman driving by the housing complex where Martin lived at about the time of the murder had to swerve to avoid hitting a man running “like he was being chased by a pack of dogs” from the housing complex. The man didn’t look at all like Lapointe.
A man who had been at a bar in the vicinity of the housing complex and who resembled the running man committed a strikingly similar sexual assault in a neighboring town four days later.
Several partial DNA profiles were found on the inside lining of gloves found on and near the bed where the woman was attacked, none of which matched Lapointe’s DNA.
A pubic hair on the sweater the woman had been wearing contained mitochondrial DNA — the DNA contributed by a person’s mother — that came from someone other than the woman or Lapointe.
Lapointe was convicted on the basis of his supposed confession to the crime. But there is ample evidence from detectives’ notes of his nine-hour interrogation that Lapointe, who is developmentally disabled, provided a false confession.
Every likely wrongful conviction should be regarded as a cold case waiting — and demanding — to be solved. But rather than reopening the Martin investigation and looking at it as an unsolved cold case, the state has continued to defend the original conviction.
In recent years, Connecticut has enacted important legislation designed to prevent wrongful convictions. It has required that confessions to serious crimes be videotaped, in order to prevent false confessions.
And in 2012, it mandated the blind or double-blind administration and sequential presentation of a suspect and fillers in a lineup or photo array in order to minimize eyewitness misidentifications — the single most frequent cause, by far, of wrongful convictions.
The state now leads the country in preventing wrongful convictions. There is no reason it should not also lead it in correcting the wrongful convictions that occurred in the past. Rather than relying exclusively on a habeas process that is overloaded with frivolous appeals and drags out appeals for decades, the state should follow the example of many large cities across the country and create a conviction integrity unit in the office of the chief state’s attorney.
David R. Cameron is a professor of political science at Yale and a member of the state’s Eyewitness Identification Task Force.