The very good news is that New York now has the information it needs to take action on what can only be described as a crisis of wrongful convictions.
The bad news is that New York didn't care enough about this subject to do the work itself. The New York State Bar Association took on the critical task and soon hopes to pass its recommendations on to the State Legislature.
The need for an "innocence commission" has been obvious in New York for years -- ever since DNA testing began uncovering an increasing number of innocent men and women consigned to prison. Even one such person should be uncomfortable to New Yorkers, including their state representatives. But 53 of them -- including at least two in Erie County -- should be intolerable.
This is fundamentally a law-and-order issue. Not only does wrongful conviction cast innocent people -- and their families -- into an unimagineable hell, it leaves the actual criminal free to continue raping and murdering.
That's what happened in Erie County in at least one recent, notorious case. The 1987 conviction of Anthony Capozzi as the Delaware Park rapist left the real predator, Altemio C. Sanchez, free to continue raping and, soon, to begin murdering women. The prosecutor, judge and jury -- the entire system -- got it wrong. As a result, Capozzi spent more than 21 years behind bars before DNA helped police uncover the truth.
Prosecutors, judges and jurors, of course, are as human as the rest of us, and prone to mistakes. The fixable problem is with the system; it needs to be adjusted to diminish the chance of convicting innocent people and leaving criminals loose on the streets.
Many other states have formed innocence commissions to investigate where the system goes wrong, but New York has shown virtually no interest. The State Senate, in particular, pretended the problem didn't exist. But that was when the chamber was controlled by Republicans. Today, Democrats run the chamber, and New Yorkers can hope that change, together with the Bar Association's recommendations, will finally goad the Legislature into treating the tragedy of wrongful conviction with the seriousness it demands.
The association's recommendations are smart. Many have been adopted by other states. (This page offered similar ones in a 2008 editorial page series called "Hard Time for the Innocent," available on the Internet at www.buffalonews.com/413/index.html) They include:
*Holding pretrial conferences to resolve issues relating to the state's disclosure of information that would tend to exonerate the accused.
*Training police officers to investigate alternative theories for a case at least until they are reasonably satisfied they are without merit.
*Performing lineups and other identification procedures with officers who do not know the identity of the suspect.
*Electronically recording all custodial interrogations, with a strong preference for video recording. That would help to guard against the bizarre but all-too-real phenomenon of false confessions. In nearly one-quarter of the 53 New York cases analyzed by the committee, the accused had falsely confessed. The report also recommends specific training on false confessions for police, prosecutors, judges and defense attorneys.
The testimony of jailhouse informants, who have been known to lie in order to reduce their sentences, should be corroborated.
These are sensible recommendations, many of them already adopted in states more attuned to this law enforcement problem than New York is. It is pathetic that New York needs to be pushed to do an obviously right thing, but the state will soon have its chance to act. For the sake of all the other Anthony Capozzis in New York -- and the pending victims of other Altemio Sanchezes -- that is what New York must do.