The New York State Bar Association and the Innocence Project today urged state lawmakers to pass reform legislation that could significantly reduce the likelihood of innocent New Yorkers going to prison for crimes they did not commit.
The two bills would require police agencies to videotape all custodial interrogations and to adopt a more objective way of conducting police lineups for eyewitnesses.
At a press conference in Albany, Bar Association President Vincent E. Doyle III and Innocence Project Co-Director Barry Scheck were joined by: five men who collectively spent more than 90 years in prison for crimes they did not commit; a Texas rape victim who mistakenly identified the wrong suspect; one of the three Duke University lacrosse players falsely accused of rape in 2006; and a North Carolina police captain whose department has successfully adopted interrogation and eyewitness reforms.
The Innocence Project today also released the results of its Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) requests of more than 500 New York police agencies seeking information about their eyewitness identification policies.
"New York has the third largest number of wrongful convictions in the country. When state legislators in March voted to expand the state's DNA database, they hailed the move as wrongful conviction reform," Scheck said. "But if they are really concerned about protecting the innocent, they will pass legislation this session to prevent misidentifications and false confessions, two of the leading causes of wrongful convictions. These reforms help protect all New Yorkers, from crime victims to innocent suspects, to the public at large because they enhance the ability of police to find the real perpetrators."
"Our criminal justice system is supposed to protect us all, while respecting individual rights," said Doyle of Buffalo (Connors & Vilardo). "Wrongful convictions pervert the system - they rob innocent people of their liberty, while allowing guilty people to go free to commit additional crimes. We urge legislators to address this travesty of justice before leaving Albany next month."
Seymour W. James, Jr. of New York City (The Legal Aid Society of New York), who assumes the presidency of the Bar Association on June 1, also attended the press conference.
The Innocence Project and State Bar are asking lawmakers to focus on two critical measures to address wrongful convictions.
• To prevent false confessions, they are calling for legislation requiring police to videotape interrogations in full so that there is a complete record of the interrogation that can be shown in court.
• To prevent eyewitness misidentifications, they are seeking approval of a bill mandating that police identification procedures be conducted in a double-blind fashion, meaning that the officer who conducts the lineup does not know the identity of the suspect. This will ensure that the eyewitness is not influenced by clues delivered either directly or indirectly by police. These reforms were endorsed by the Bar Association's Task Force on Wrongful Convictions, which issued a report in April 2009. (www.nysba.org/wcreport)
Underscoring the need for improved identification procedures, the Innocence Project released the results of a survey on whether police agencies around the state had formal identification procedure policies. The group last year sent FOIL requests to 505 police agencies. Of the 349 agencies that responded, 112 provided formal written policies. Of those 112, none entirely embraced the reform package endorsed by the New York State Bar Association and the Innocence Project, and only two provided written policies that directed the use of a blind administrator, the most important reform.
Also during the press conference, five New York men who were eventually exonerated after serving lengthy prison sentences presented a joint letter urging lawmakers to enact the reforms. Steven Barnes, wrongly convicted in Utica, NY; Fernando Bermudez, wrongly convicted in New York, NY; Jeff Deskovic, wrongly convicted in Westchester, NY; Alan Newton, wrongly convicted in Bronx, NY; and Frank Sterling, wrongly convicted in Rochester, NY; spent a collective 92 ½ years in prison for crimes they did not commit.
Deskovic's newly formed foundation, The Jeffrey Deskovic Foundation for Justice, also supports the reforms: "The Jeffrey Deskovic Foundation for Justice views legislation mandating identification reform and videotaping interrogations as essential tools to assist law enforcement in apprehending the right person, as opposed to sending innocent people to prison while the actual offender remains free and able to strike again."
Sylvia Barnes, Steven's mother, spoke about how wrongful convictions affect family members.
Reade Seligmann, who along with two lacrosse teammates at Duke University was falsely accused of rape in 2006, detailed his year-long ordeal to prove his innocence.
Michele Mallin, a rape victim from Texas, spoke about the pain she suffered after learning that she had repeatedly misidentified her attacker. Tim Cole served 14 years of a 25-year sentence before dying in prison. He was exonerated posthumously after Mallin's real attacker confessed.
Capt. Michael Smathers of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg (N.C.) Police Department explained how his department responded to the adoption of new procedures guiding eyewitness and confession evidence: "Changes in practices always produce some stress and concern over the real-life impacts that might present themselves after a decision is made on such an important issue. The reality has been that these procedures have done nothing to hinder us in the clearance of our cases. In fact, the robbery unit's clearance rate is well above the national average. Our cases are strong and are harder to impugn with these procedures in place. It is also important to note that I believe these changes have increased the public's confidence in our work, which is vital to our relationship with the community we serve."
Jonathan Gradess, executive director of the New York State Defenders Association, also spoke about the need for prosecutors to share evidence that might be favorable to the accused prior to a trial.
Assembly Codes Committee Chair Joseph Lentol (D-Brooklyn) and Sen. Ruth Hassel-Thompson (D-Bronx) spoke about wrongful conviction bills they introduced in the Legislature that would reduce the possibility that innocent persons are convicted of crimes they did not commit.
The Innocence Project, a non-profit public policy and litigation organization affiliated with the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University, is dedicated to exonerating the wrongfully convicted through DNA testing and reforming the criminal justice system to prevent future injustice.
The 77,000-member New York State Bar Association is the largest voluntary state bar association in the United States. It was founded in 1876.
212-364-5346; cell 917-566-1294
New York State Bar Association
Director of Media Services
518-487-5530; cell 518-312-8239