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Help for the innocent

With the state budget completed – and on time, for the third consecutive year – Albany can now turn to the non-budget issues that are calling out for attention. That list needs to include the problem of wrongful conviction.

In his State of the State speech in January, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo formally recognized that New York has a problem in its criminal justice system. Now the state needs to act.

In his speech, Cuomo pushed for reforms that recognize the obvious: With 27 people having been exonerated in New York of crimes they did not commit, the state needs to take practical steps to reduce the chances of wrongful conviction.

It can be done. Other states have done it. Prosecutors, defense lawyers and judges in New York have endorsed it. All that is needed is for the New York State Senate to stop ignoring a fundamental matter of law and order, crime prevention and public safety.

Western New Yorkers understand that. Two high-profile convictions were overturned in recent years when DNA proved that the people who had been sentenced to prison were, in fact, innocent. They had been convicted of crimes they did not commit and deprived of their liberty for years.

Lynn M. DeJac Peters spent 14 years in prison, wrongfully convicted of murdering her own daughter. There is suspicion that the actual killer continued preying on innocent people while DeJac served time for a terrible crime that she did not commit.

In the case of Anthony Capozzi, wrongfully convicted as the Delaware Park rapist, there is no doubt the real rapist continued victimizing women. Altemio Sanchez graduated from rape to murder as the Western New York Bike Path Killer. Women from this region would still be alive if the actual rapist hadn’t been allowed to roam free for the 21 years Capozzi languished in prison.

Cuomo has proposed two sensible approaches to reduce two of the most common causes of wrongful conviction: witness misidentification and false confession. For the former, he has proposed blind administering of eyewitness photo IDs, and for the latter, videotaping interrogations for suspects in violent crimes and related offenses and sex offenses.

These are crucial reforms that have been undertaken in other states. Both guard against police inadvertently contaminating witness identification procedures or interrogations of suspects.

The latter can produce the strange phenomenon of false confession, in which a suspect, under extreme pressure and sometimes mentally ill, confesses to a crime he did not commit. If police inadvertently feed the suspect details that only the criminal would know, an innocent person can wind up in prison. It has happened.

The Assembly has supported these kinds of reforms, and while Cuomo has been open to them, this year he made them a goal. But the Senate has resisted, possibly because its members think, wrongly, that strengthening procedures would make them appear soft on crime. But it’s not soft on crime to be sure you arrest the right person.

Indeed, seven states have recently made improvements to their eyewitness identification procedures, according to the Innocence Project, which uses DNA evidence to exonerate wrongfully convicted prisoners. Eighteen states require some interrogations to be recorded.

Those reforms also have broad-based support in this state. The New York Justice Task Force, which includes judges, district attorneys, members of law enforcement and lawmakers from both parties, issued recommendations several years ago that include these reforms. In New York City, Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly has announced plans to record interrogations in homicide or sex crime investigations.

What more political cover do state senators need? We can be certain that more innocent New Yorkers are behind prison walls here. Do we need to send even more there before the State Legislature acts?

Lawmakers have their chance now to do something important. They should grab it.