NY to Create Permanent Innocence Task Force

New York's top judge, Jonathan Lippman (chief judge of the NY Court of Appeals) has announced the creation of a permanent task force to study wrongful convictions and how to minimize their occurrence. The plan is receiving wide praise.

Members of the task force, who are being selected by Judge Lippman, will include prosecutors, defense lawyers, scientists and lawmakers. They will have a broad mandate to examine police procedures, court rules and other issues involved in wrongful convictions.

“We’re going to take the raw material from all the cases here in New York and, for that matter, around the country, and see what we need to do to change the criminal justice system so this doesn’t happen,” Judge Lippman said in an interview on Wednesday.

This is something that Innocence Project co-founders Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld called for in their 2002 book, Actual Innocence, and in detail here.[More...]

Major mishaps - environmental disaster, wrongful death, hospital malpractice, etc. - are subjected to a comprehensive investigation in nearly every institution involved with public health and safety. When an airplane crashes or a train derails, the National Transportation Safety Board ("the NTSB") immediately conducts an investigation into the causes of the incident and makes recommendations to prevent further harm from occurring. Since the primary purpose of the NTSB is to protect the public safety, it will sometimes issue safety recommendations before its investigation of a crash is complete. Agencies like the NTSB are effective because they are equipped with subpoena power, great expertise, and real independence, allowing them to ask and find answers to the important and obvious questions: What went wrong? Was it systemic error or an individual's mistake? Was there any official misconduct? What can be done to correct the problem and prevent it from happening again?

Wrongful convictions of the innocent are the American criminal justice system's equivalent of a major catastrophe. The guilty are not punished, the innocent are imprisoned or sentenced to death, and the real perpetrators remain free to commit more crimes. Still, when an innocent person is exonerated by DNA testing or other evidence, our justice system has no institutional mechanism to evaluate and address the causes of that wrongful conviction.

In order to effectively address the recurring, institutional problems that contribute to the conviction of the innocent, states should create innocence commissions to monitor, investigate, and address errors in the criminal justice system. When a wrongful conviction occurs, these commissions should be empowered to undertake a comprehensive review of the system's failures, and ask: What went wrong? Was it systemic error or an individual's mistake? Was there any official misconduct? What can be done to correct the problem and prevent it from happening in the future?

The New York plan is said to be the most "robust" in the country:

While court officials or lawmakers in a handful of other states have set up commissions or task forces on wrongful convictions, some experts said that Mr. Lippman’s version promised to be the most robust in the country, with a continuing and influential role in developing criminal justice policy throughout New York.

Unlike some of those other efforts, New York’s task force will not be limited to capital cases, nor will it confine itself to a single set of recommendations. Instead, the task force will collect data about wrongful convictions on a continuing basis and monitor the effectiveness of any policy changes.

For those who think this isn't a ongoing concern: Gary Richards was freed from prison Thursday after serving 22 years of a life sentence in a Texas prison for a rape and kidnapping.

Last week, as part of a review of 160 cases with HPD blood typing evidence, new forensic tests confirmed that incriminating testimony a crime lab supervisor offered at Richard’s trial was false. Those new tests, however, are less definitive than DNA analysis, which cannot be performed because the physical evidence from the attack has been destroyed.

....Prosecutors could decide to retry Richard or drop the case because of insufficient evidence or because they determine he is innocent. Ultimately,

DNA isn't available in every case. And there are a lot of causes of wrongful convictions, including lab fraud, faulty eyewitness testimony, junk science, jailhouse snitch testimony, false confessions, government misconduct and bad lawyering.

Sounds like New York is on the right track. Hopefully, more states will follow suit.

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