Saturday, December 31, 2016

Editorial: New York State continues its shameful refusal to act against wrongful convictions

The following editorial was published by The Buffalo News on December 30, 2016.

Nearly 10 years after two Buffalo residents were exonerated of crimes they did not commit, but for which they served decades in prison, New York State lawmakers remain indifferent to the problem of wrongful conviction.

It’s a dereliction of duty and a moral crime against the people of the state, those who remain wrongfully imprisoned and those other innocents who will be incarcerated because of the state’s willful inaction.

Anthony Capozzi served almost 22 years in prison for rapes he did not commit. He was utterly and completely innocent. While he and his family suffered all those years, the actual rapist, Altemio Sanchez, graduated to murder. It’s what can happen when the law gets it wrong and lawmakers don’t act.

Lynn DeJac spent more than 13 years in prison after being convicted of murdering her daughter, Crystallyn Girard, 13.

DeJac’s boyfriend at the time of the death, Dennis Donohue, was initially a suspect but later testified against her. DeJac was exonerated when DNA on the victim’s body was found to be from Donohue. After DeJac was exonerated, Donohue was convicted of murdering Joan Giambra in 1993, only seven months after the death of Crystallyn.

DeJac – released from prison in 2007 and exonerated in 2008 – died of cancer in 2014.

They were two of many. The National Registry of Exonerations lists over 200 people exonerated in New York alone. That’s more than 10 percent of the 1,945 shown to have been innocent nationwide. (The registry is a project of the University of California, Irvine Newkirk Center for Science and Society, the University of Michigan Law School and Michigan State University College of Law.)

One of those recently exonerated is a Town of Tonawanda native, just released after spending 21 years in a Texas prison for a sexual assault he did not commit. Brian E. Franklin had been a police officer in Fort Worth, but in 1995, he was convicted of criminal sexual assault of a child and sentenced to 30 years in prison, based on a false accusation by the alleged victim.

Since then, Texas has acted to change procedures that can lead to wrongful conviction. Although it can do more, it has already done more than New York.

It’s important to note that these aren’t people who were freed because of a legal technicality or because they somehow beat the system. To the contrary, the system beat them. It ground them up. These were innocent people.

Perhaps most infamous of the New York cases is that of the Central Park Five, teenagers wrongfully convicted of raping a jogger and leaving her in a coma. They, too, were innocent.

The five young men were convicted based on false confessions. They were kept from their parents, threatened and misled until police got what they wanted.

False confession is a strange phenomenon, but it’s one of the most common causes of wrongful conviction. It is often associated with drug addiction, mental illness and other factors allowing suspects to be easily manipulated. And to that point: A prison inmate later confessed to the assault on the jogger, and his DNA left at the crime scene clinched it. In 2014, New York City paid $41 million to settle a lawsuit filed by the wrongfully convicted men.

The other most common cause of wrongful conviction is witness misidentification. That’s what happened to Capozzi who, at the time of the crimes, bore an unfortunate resemblance to Sanchez. Still, he was significantly heavier than the description offered by the victims and bore a scar that none of them reported. The system beat him.

There are ways to fix these issues, but New York legislators can’t bring themselves to act on them, any more than they can on the state’s own chronic corruption. But other states have responded and, in doing so, have strengthened law enforcement.

Changes in lineup procedures have been shown to diminish the chances of misidentification. Video recordings of interrogations limit the chances of false confession, which can even be obtained unintentionally. These are both doable actions. They aren’t impossible and they don’t unduly burden law enforcement agencies. They serve the public, as the families of the women Sanchez murdered while Capozzi sat in jail might readily agree.

Two years ago, the Legislature seemed prepared to act, having finally won the support of the state’s prosecutors. But it didn’t act, in effect deciding that it was better to risk sending more innocent people to prison.

This needs to be high on the Legislature’s agenda in 2017, especially that of the Senate, which has been especially recalcitrant. There, Sen. Patrick Gallivan, R-Elma, a former Erie County sheriff and chairman of the Committee on Crime Victims, Crime and Corrections, can make a lasting difference by helping his colleagues see that the issues are critical, resolvable and, ultimately, make for better law enforcement.

No solution will be perfect. Reliable and well-considered systems can restrain the influences of human fallibility, not eliminate them. But it can do that much, diminishing the chances that innocent people will forfeit years of their lives and that others will be murdered while criminals continue to roam the streets.

Tuesday, December 06, 2016

It's time to exonerate Ethel Rosenberg

The following opinion was published by the Daily Hampshire Gazette on December 5, 2016.

Sixty-three years ago, Robert and Michael Meeropol made their first trip to the White House seeking to save their parents, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, from execution as Communist spies.

The boys, then ages 6 and 10, are seen in a photo standing at a gate in front of the White House on June 14, 1953, attempting to hand-deliver a letter to then-president Dwight D. Eisenhower in which Michael wrote: “Please let my mommy and daddy go and not let anything happen to them.” The plea failed and the Rosenbergs were executed on June 19, 1953.

Last Thursday, the brothers reenacted their visit to the White House, this time seeking a proclamation from President Barack Obama exonerating their mother by declaring that she was not a spy for the Soviet Union and that she was unjustly convicted and executed. Michael, 73, who lives in New York, and Robert, 69, of Easthampton, have spent some four decades trying to clear their mother’s name.

It is past time for the U.S. government to acknowledge this grievous wrong that was committed during the “Red Scare” of the 1950s. While many people were victimized by the anti-Communist hysteria fueled by demagogues such as U.S. Sen. Joseph McCarthy, Ethel Rosenberg, who was a Communist, stands atop the list because she paid with her life after being accused with her husband Julius of committing the “crime of the century” by passing secrets about the atomic bomb to the Soviets.

 By issuing the proclamation, Obama would make a powerful, cautionary statement not only about the the Cold War-era of the 1950s, but also about fears stoked by the anti-Muslim rhetoric of president-elect Donald Trump. That message should be to reject guilt by association and sweeping generalizations – whether it be labeling all Communists as un-American 60 years ago, or all Muslims as terrorists today.

The documents available today show that Julius Rosenberg was part of one of several spy rings run by the Soviet Union in the United States after World War II, although the nature of the information he passed on during his espionage is disputed. His sons maintain that he did not give up secrets about the atomic bomb.

The Rosenbergs were convicted largely as the result of testimony by Ethel’s brother Army Sgt. David Greenglass, who worked as a machinist at the Los Alamos, New Mexico, headquarters of the Manhattan Project to build the atomic bomb. Greenglass and his wife Ruth testified during Ethel Rosenberg’s trial that she had been present at two meetings in 1945 with her husband and the Greenglasses. According to the Greenglasses’ testimony, at one of those meetings David gave Julius a sketch of the atomic bomb, while Ethel typed notes.

However, David Greenglass, who  was indicted as a co-conspirator and sentenced to 10 years in prison, gave different testimony to a grand jury before the trial. Documents released in 2015, a year after his death, had no mention in his grand jury testimony of Ethel Rosenberg’s presence at either meeting. Instead, Greenglass told the grand jury: “I never spoke to my sister about this at all.”

The Meeropol brothers contend that Greenglass fabricated his testimony at Ethel Rosenberg’s trial after reaching a deal with prosecutors to reduce his sentence.

In addition to delivering documents supporting their case to the White House last week, the Meeropols have an online petition ( seeking exoneration for Ethel Rosenberg. As of Monday afternoon, it had been signed by 44,336 people.

In an accompanying statement, the Meeropols write that “our parents’ execution helped fuel a dangerous climate of fear and intolerance in our country which permitted political opportunists like Senator Joseph McCarthy to poison our society. Today we face a similar climate of hatred which targets immigrants, Muslims, LGBTQI individuals and others.”

Congressman James P. McGovern of Worcester last week wrote a letter to Obama urging him to issue a proclamation acknowledging the politically motivated injustice in Ethel Rosenberg’s execution. “By so doing, you can send a clear message to the American people that our government’s actions must be just, humane and accountable,” McGovern told the president.

That would be fitting as one of Obama’s final acts before he leaves office in January.