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Legislation is still needed; Schneiderman steps up after state fails to act on wrongful convictions

It's a step forward. Not a huge one, but given New York's perplexing recalcitrance about fixing its problem with wrongful convictions, any movement is good.

What is needed in this state is for the governor and Legislature to institute systemic reforms in the criminal justice system to reduce the possibility that innocent people will be sentenced to prison. But the governor and Legislature are not yet ready to exercise the leadership required to achieve those reforms.

Instead, New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman has stepped forward with a program that may directly help to identify and release those who have been wrongfully convicted, but at best will only indirectly help to prevent those wrongful convictions in the first place.

Schneiderman last week announced the creation of a Convictions Review Bureau whose purpose is to identify cases in anticipation of possible lawsuits, efficiently resolve claims by those unjustly convicted and review the investigative and prosecutorial practices by the Attorney General's Office to ensure reliability and best practices.

It's the right thing for Schneiderman to do. As he observed in launching the program, the only winner in a case of wrongful conviction is the actual criminal. Western New Yorkers are all too familiar with that phenomenon. When Anthony Capozzi of Buffalo was wrongfully convicted as the Delaware Park rapist -- a mistake that cost him 22 years in prison -- the real rapist, Altemio Sanchez, was left free to continue raping women and, soon, to begin murdering them as the Bike Path Killer.

But most of what Schneiderman is proposing -- and all his office is capable of -- is looking to fix problems that have already occurred. He is also planning to review his own office's procedures, it is true, but the overwhelming majority of prosecutions in New York are by local prosecutors. It is a rarity for the attorney general's office to engage in that kind of criminal case.

Schneiderman's leadership will affect those few cases and may set an example for county prosecutors to follow, but beyond that, he can do little to fix the problems that have already been identified as contributing to New York's problems with wrongful conviction. That's a job for Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and the State Legislature, and they aren't doing it.

They had a chance. The State Assembly pushed hard this year for laws that would reduce the incidence of witness misidentification (the mistake that ensnared Capozzi) and false confession, an odd but real occurrence. But the governor and Senate, which have been foolishly stubborn on this law-and-order issue, wouldn't budge.

Instead, the Legislature and governor agreed to expand the state's DNA database, an important move toward prosecutorial accuracy, but one that does nothing to improve processes that are known to produce wrongful convictions. Some reports suggest they may yet move on this important issue. They should.

In the absence of gubernatorial and Senate action, it is encouraging that Schneiderman was willing to demonstrate leadership on this issue. But that's not enough; New Yorkers need their governor and Legislature to meet their responsibilities, too.