New York: The State That Never Sleeps (except when it comes to wrongful convictions)
New York State has often been at the forefront of social justice and progressive reform. But when it comes to preventing wrongful convictions, New York inexplicably and inexcusably has dragged its feet, standing by idly while other states have taken great strides in embracing systemic reform.
Of the 208 people who have been exonerated by post-conviction DNA testing, 23 were in New York, the third most of any state in the country. Yet the 260 years that those 23 innocent people spent in prison has not been tragic enough to move our policymakers into action.
The Innocence Project issued a report last week titled "Lessons Not Learned", calling upon the Empire State to advance both justice and safety by enacting reforms to remedy problems in the criminal justice system. According to the report, since 2000, 17 wrongfully convicted people in New York have been exonerated with DNA evidence; seven of the 17 were wrongfully convicted of murder. In 13 of the 23 wrongful convictions, eyewitness misidentification was a contributing factor; in 10 of the cases, innocent people falsely confessed or admitted to crimes that DNA later proved they did not commit; in 10 cases, a role was played by unreliable forensic science; and four cases involved informants or snitches.
But even in the face of repeated injustice, and with full knowledge that the above factors have repeatedly caused wrongful convictions, New York has barely lifted a finger. Why is it that 17 states considered legislation this year to improve eyewitness identification procedures (with bills passing in five states and making progress in seven others), but New York did nothing? Why is it that 22 states have statutes mandating the preservation of crime scene evidence, but New York does not? Why is it that six states --- five of which have had far fewer known wrongful convictions that New York --- have formed Innocence Commissions to identify the causes of wrongful convictions and develop remedies to prevent them, but New York has not? Why is it that, even though DNA has exonerated more people in New York who falsely confessed than in any other state, of the nine states that require at least some interrogations to be recorded, New York is not one of them? Why are there more than 500 local jurisdictions across the country that record at least some interrogations, but only two of these are in New York State?
It is time New York picks up the pace to implement reforms to prevent wrongful convictions. Peter Neufeld, co-director of the Innocence Project, stated that "'there is no doubt that wrongful convictions are a problem in New York, yet the legislative, executive and judicial branches have not implemented reforms that are proven to enhance the criminal justice system. Many other states have begun to address and prevent wrongful convictions, and it's well past time for New York to take steps that can improve public safety and restore confidence in the criminal justice system.'"
New York should follow the lead taken by policymakers across the nation, such as Dallas District Attorney Craig Watkins, who will be headlining a panel hosted by DMI on October 29, 2007, titled "Preventing Wrongful Convictions and Exonerating the Innocent." In the face of numerous wrongful convictions in Dallas, Watkins permitted review of over 350 Dallas County convictions dating back to 1970 to decide whether DNA tests should be conducted, and has considered undertaking other reforms in areas such as eyewitness identification.
In addition to the example set by DA Watkins, New York should heed the Innocence Project's recommendations, which include:
1) Ensuring proper preservation, cataloguing and retention of biological evidence
2) Avoiding limits on when DNA can be retested to establish the innocence of the wrongfully convicted (or when other evidence of innocence can be introduced that could prove innocence post-conviction)
3) Enabling defendants to obtain comparisons of crime scene evidence to forensic databases
4) Requiring videotaping of custodial interrogations in their entirety
5) Mandating implementation of eyewitness identification procedures that have been empirically proven to increase accuracy and minimize the likelihood of misidentifications
6) Establishing an independent commission to examine the causes of wrongful convictions and propose remedies to prevent them
These reforms are not only aimed at protecting innocent defendants; they are also aimed at protecting the public. Every time an innocent person is convicted, the actual culprit remains at large. In 10 of the 23 DNA exonerations in New York, the actual perpetrator was later identified, and in nine of those cases, the real perpetrators went on to commit additional crimes. According to law enforcement, five murders, seven rapes, two serious assaults and one robbery at gunpoint were committed by the perpetrators of crimes for which innocent people were imprisoned.
How many wrongful convictions will it take before New York takes serious steps to stop them? Will New York answer the call of the Innocence Project? Will it follow the lead of DA Watkins? As Sinatra once sang, "It's up to you, New York."