The problem of wrongful conviction is, we suspect, worse than most people ever thought. A new archive compiled at two universities shows that more than 2,000 people have been exonerated in the past 23 years after being falsely convicted of serious crimes. Those are only the ones who have been cleared. Who knows how many more are watching their lives slip away in prisons where they do not belong?
The problem of wrongful conviction is an under-appreciated catastrophe. Beyond the tragic unfairness of years lost behind bars is the financial and emotional impact on families and society and the hard fact that when the wrong person is in prison, the real criminal remains on the loose.
It would be one thing if nothing could be done about this problem, but there is plenty that can be done. New York just can't bring itself to do it.
The research was conducted by the University of Michigan Law School and the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University School of Law. The list the researchers produced is the most complete accounting of exonerations ever compiled and contains information on 873 exonerations for which they have the most detailed evidence. The researchers are also aware of 1,200 other exonerations, for which they have less information. Some of the data they produced include:
* The 873 exonerated defendants spent a combined total of more than 10,000 years in prison, an average of more than 11 years each.
* Ninety percent of the 873 are men, and half are African-American.
* Nearly half of the 873 exonerations were homicide cases, including 101 death sentences. More than one-third of the cases were sexual assaults. DNA evidence led to exoneration in nearly one-third of the 416 homicides and in nearly two-thirds of the 305 sexual assaults.
New York combines one of the nation's worst records on wrongful conviction — two recent cases occurred in Erie County — with one of the worst records at responding appropriately. It knows the problem and it knows what it needs to do. It just won't do it.
Some of the measures supported by the Innocence Project in New York City, and adopted in other states, include changes in lineup procedures to diminish the frequency of misidentification by witnesses, and recording interrogations to guard against false confessions, an odd phenomenon that occurs with disturbing frequency.
New York's resistance to reform goes largely unexplained, though some critics believe it is because many voters would perceive such measures as being unfriendly to police and of benefit to criminals. But the opposite is true.
Convicting the right person not only avoids putting innocent people in prison, but ensures that the real criminal isn't out creating more victims.
That's what happened in Erie County, when Anthony Capozzi was misidentified as the Delaware Park rapist. An innocent man, he spent 22 years in prison for crimes he did not commit. In the meantime, the real rapist, Altemio Sanchez, began a murder spree as the Bike Path killer.
Some police, once they begin recording interrogations, say they like the change. It makes better detectives of them and guards against inadvertently feeding suspects crime details that only the perpetrators would know. Once an innocent person repeats that information, he has signed his own arrest warrant.
New York had a chance to act on this problem earlier this year when it expanded the state's DNA database. It didn't, to its shame. The Assembly has supported reforms but the Senate and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo remain strangely silent.
It is time for them to speak up. As Samuel Gross, editor of the newly opened National Registry of Exonerations, said: "We know there are many more that we haven't found."