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Editorial: State takes powerful steps against wrongful conviction

It took far too long, given the undisputed, crying need, but tucked away in the New York State budget are some powerful criminal justice reforms aimed at preventing the compound tragedies of wrongful conviction. That makes this an especially significant budget.

Significantly, among those praising the measures is the Innocence Project, the Manhattan-based organization whose sole mission is to exonerate those who have been cast into prison for crimes they did not commit – that is, people who are actually, provably innocent and yet have been convicted of felonies and put behind bars. Its praise speaks volumes of the value of these critical reforms. They will help not only to protect innocent people from terrible injustice, but to safeguard the public’s confidence in the criminal justice system.

And they will keep other people from being murdered.

The new measures attack the two most common causes of wrongful conviction: witness misidentification and the odd-but-true phenomenon of false confession. For years, leaders in government and law enforcement have known how to diminish those influences, but unlike many other states, New York dug in its heels, flatly refusing to act.

Now – finally – it responded, and although it would be wrong to categorize these reforms as worth the wait, the state has made at least some amends with rules that go to the heart of the matter. They are not just window dressing.

Consider false confession. It tends to happen to suspects who are very young, mentally ill or addicted to drugs. They are often confused, stressed and pliant – willing and eager to sign whatever they are given in a desperate effort to relieve the unrelenting pressure of long interrogations.
In criminal trials, a confession trumps all. Juries, understandably, don’t readily accept the notion that anyone would confess to a felony they did not commit. And yet …

That’s how Frank Sterling lost more than 17 years of his life, confessing in Rochester to a murder he didn’t commit. According to the Innocence Project, investigators who were working the 1988 crime as a cold case came back to Sterling, a previous suspect, even though he had an airtight alibi. Using suggestive and manipulative techniques, the investigators finally wheedled a confession ( out of him – more than eight hours later. But Sterling was innocent.

Nevertheless, he spent almost 18 years in prison while the real killer, later identified as Mark Christie, another early suspect, went on to kill a 4-year-old girl. Such is the price of wrongful conviction and of any state’s refusal to treat it with the seriousness it demands.

The new law, with some appropriate exceptions, mandates the recording of custodial interviews. Investigators in jurisdictions already under such obligations have said they have made better detectives of them. They help, for example, to avoid cases in which investigators feed confidential details of the crime to a suspect who then parrots them back in their false confession.

The other primary cause of wrongful conviction played out tragically in Buffalo when Anthony Capozzi was misidentified as “the Delaware Park rapist,” and sent to prison for almost 22 years. Meanwhile the real rapist, Altemio Sanchez, began a reign of terror, murdering women in a series of homicides attributed to the “Bike Path Killer.” Again, innocent people paid with their freedom and their lives because the wrong person was convicted.

To reduce the chances of witness misidentification, the state has now changed its lineup procedures. It allows the use of photo arrays and similar techniques, and requires administrators of identification procedures to do so “blind,” so they cannot inadvertently suggest who police believe to be the suspect.

Such procedures might or might not have saved Lynn DeJac (later Lynn DeJac Peters) who was convicted in Erie County of murdering her own daughter, Crystallyn Girard, who was 13. She didn’t do it.

DeJac’s boyfriend at the time was Dennis Donohue, who was initially a suspect and later testified against DeJac. She served 13 years in prison before being exonerated when DNA on the victim’s body turned out to be from Donohue.

After DeJac was exonerated, Donohue was convicted of the 1993 murder of Joan Giambra, which occurred only seven months after the death of Crystallyn. And for the mistakes of the system, the innocents paid.

DeJac Peters died of cancer three years ago.

Many other wrongful convictions have occurred in New York, including the infamous case of the Central Park Five, convicted of brutally assaulting a jogger in the New York City park. They were coerced into confessions and only years later were exonerated. Someone else had attacked the woman.

The Innocence Project reports that 224 wrongful convictions have been overturned in New York and that misidentification or false confession played a role in each of the 30 cases that included DNA evidence.

These changes are long overdue, but if they are implemented carefully and enforced diligently, the possibilities of ruined and lost lives due to wrongful conviction will be dramatically reduced. Though late, the Legislature and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo deserve praise for acting comprehensively.

The question now is, how many people remain locked up, suffering in every imaginable way, for crimes they did not commit? That work must continue.

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