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Legislature should act on pending reform measures

It took only three minutes on Monday for the criminal justice system to undo a 24-year-old wrong. That's when, based on new DNA evidence, Erie County District Attorney Frank Sedita and Judge Michael Pietruszka formally dismissed rape charges against Douglas Pacyon, who spent seven years in prison for a rape he did not commit.

Pacyon is not the only Buffalonian to have lived this nightmare. Anthony Capozzi of Buffalo spent 22 years in prison for two rapes he did not commit. He was freed when DNA tests of evidence stored in a hospital drawer proved his innocence. Wrongfully imprisoned for more than 13 years for murdering her daughter, Lynn DeJac, also of Buffalo, was released after DNA testing of bloodstains pointed to someone else.

The cost of justice denied is tremendous. It devastates the life of the wrongly convicted individual, while the guilty person remains free to commit more crimes. It wastes millions of taxpayer dollars on legal fees and the cost to imprison the innocent. And it erodes New Yorkers' belief in the justice system.

The New York State Legislature has introduced six new bills to address the leading causes of wrongful convictions. The bills were drafted by the New York State Bar Association based on the work of its Task Force on Wrongful Convictions. Recently, the package was reported out of the committees in the Senate and Assembly.

Some of these changes may meet with resistance among some legislators, but three bills should have overwhelming support, and we urge the Legislature to act on them before this session ends. They are:

*Exculpatory information: By law, prosecutors must provide the defense with information -- before trial -- that may clear the accused. This bill would better define exculpatory information, clarify what information must be provided to the defense, establish the time frame for delivering it and provide relief if there is a violation.

*Recording custodial interrogations: Electronic recording of interrogations of suspects in custody can protect both law enforcement officers and the civilians they question. This bill would mandate that all custodial questioning of suspects be recorded, thus helping remove any doubt about the validity of a suspect's statement or the use of proper police procedures.

*Vacating a guilty plea based on new DNA evidence: The use of DNA to clear the innocent has advanced significantly as tests have become more nuanced and sophisticated over the years. This bill allows someone who pleaded guilty to seek to vacate a conviction if new DNA evidence is available.

Passage of this legislation will help strengthen public confidence in our justice system while saving millions of dollars in wasteful spending. Most importantly, it will go a long way to ensuring that cases like Pacyon's, Capozzi's and DeJac's never happen again.

Vincent E. Doyle III is president-elect of the New York State Bar Association and a partner at the Buffalo law firm, Connors & Vilardo.

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