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Convicted but innocent ; Latest exoneration shows again the need to institute reforms

For every innocent person who is in prison and recent events in Buffalo have proven that it happens -- there is at least one guilty person on the streets.

So as Erie County District Attorney Frank A. Sedita III properly apologizes to Douglas Pacyon for the more than six years he served in prison for a crime he did not commit, it may be even harder for the D.A. and the whole criminal justice system to explain themselves to the women who, it has been conclusively proven, Pacyon did not rape back in 1984.

Someone did attack two Cheektowaga women on May 26 and May 30 of that year. The chemical evidence of that has been stored at Erie County Medical Center all this time.

The advance of forensic science since then, along with the increasingly understood fact that convictions from the pre-DNA era can be horribly suspect, allowed Pacyon to finally find an attorney, who got the attention of a judge, who signaled the prosecutors, who got to the truth.

Pacyon didn't do it.

Both rapes were committed by the same person, the genes say, but we don't know who that person is. And even if we found out who it was today, the true perpetrator wouldn't pay for his crime. The statute of limitations is up.

It is to the credit of Sedita and prosecutor Donna A. Milling that they sought to serve the truth in this matter, not to justify past errors or cover up the fact that the system is sometimes wrong. They not only hunted down the warehoused evidence, they moved quickly once the chemical verdict was in.

And, rather than send an underling or hide behind a terse press release, Sedita himself appeared in court and in public to set the record straight and apologize to Pacyon.

Meanwhile, in Utica, prosecutors have been similarly forced to admit that another conviction -- this one based on the testimony of a jailhouse snitch who made a deal to shorten his own sentence -- was also wrong after DNA tests confirmed the innocence of a man who spent 20 years in prison for a murder someone else committed.

The question now is whether these prosecutors, and others across the state and around the nation, will take the meaning of this case to heart. Innocent lives can be ruined by convictions based on circumstantial evidence, suspect stool pigeons or even heartfelt eyewitness testimony.

The pressure to close a case, the desire to make the public feel reassured that it has been protected from at least one predator by a guilty verdict, cannot overwhelm the system's duty to justice, to the truth, to giving victims a real sense of balance, one that will not be cruelly overturned when more care and advanced techniques are later brought to bear on the case.

The Pacyon case is one more reason why we consistently call for a higher standard to be observed, for interviews and confessions to be videotaped, for DNA samples to be collected from all convicted criminals, for the law to compel judges to require that testimony from jailhouse sources be supported by some other, independent, evidence.

For the standard of success for police departments and prosecutors to be the same that it supposedly is for society as a whole: To punish the truly guilty. Not just the person who can be made to look guilty.

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