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Editorial: State continues its shameful refusal to act against wrongful convictions

Editorial: State continues its shameful refusal to act against wrongful convictions

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Lynn DeJac spent 13 years in prison after being wrongfully convicted of murdering her daughter. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News file photo)

Nearly 10 years after two Buffalo residents were exonerated of crimes they did not commit, but for which they served decades in prison, New York State lawmakers remain indifferent to the problem of wrongful conviction.

It’s a dereliction of duty and a moral crime against the people of the state, those who remain wrongfully imprisoned and those other innocents who will be incarcerated because of the state’s willful inaction.

Anthony Capozzi served almost 22 years in prison for rapes he did not commit. He was utterly and completely innocent. While he and his family suffered all those years, the actual rapist, Altemio Sanchez, graduated to murder. It’s what can happen when the law gets it wrong and lawmakers don’t act.

Lynn DeJac spent more than 13 years in prison after being convicted of murdering her daughter, Crystallyn Girard, 13.

DeJac’s boyfriend at the time of the death, Dennis Donohue, was initially a suspect but later testified against her. DeJac was exonerated when DNA on the victim’s body was found to be from Donohue. After DeJac was exonerated, Donohue was convicted of murdering Joan Giambra in 1993, only seven months after the death of Crystallyn.

DeJac – released from prison in 2007 and exonerated in 2008 – died of cancer in 2014.

They were two of many. The National Registry of Exonerations lists over 200 people exonerated in New York alone. That’s more than 10 percent of the 1,945 shown to have been innocent nationwide. (The registry is a project of the University of California, Irvine Newkirk Center for Science and Society, the University of Michigan Law School and Michigan State University College of Law.)

One of those recently exonerated is a Town of Tonawanda native, just released after spending 21 years in a Texas prison for a sexual assault he did not commit. Brian E. Franklin had been a police officer in Fort Worth, but in 1995, he was convicted of criminal sexual assault of a child and sentenced to 30 years in prison, based on a false accusation by the alleged victim.

Since then, Texas has acted to change procedures that can lead to wrongful conviction. Although it can do more, it has already done more than New York.

It’s important to note that these aren’t people who were freed because of a legal technicality or because they somehow beat the system. To the contrary, the system beat them. It ground them up. These were innocent people.

Perhaps most infamous of the New York cases is that of the Central Park Five, teenagers wrongfully convicted of raping a jogger and leaving her in a coma. They, too, were innocent.

The five young men were convicted based on false confessions. They were kept from their parents, threatened and misled until police got what they wanted.

False confession is a strange phenomenon, but it’s one of the most common causes of wrongful conviction. It is often associated with drug addiction, mental illness and other factors allowing suspects to be easily manipulated. And to that point: A prison inmate later confessed to the assault on the jogger, and his DNA left at the crime scene clinched it. In 2014, New York City paid $41 million to settle a lawsuit filed by the wrongfully convicted men.

The other most common cause of wrongful conviction is witness misidentification. That’s what happened to Capozzi who, at the time of the crimes, bore an unfortunate resemblance to Sanchez. Still, he was significantly heavier than the description offered by the victims and bore a scar that none of them reported. The system beat him.

There are ways to fix these issues, but New York legislators can’t bring themselves to act on them, any more than they can on the state’s own chronic corruption. But other states have responded and, in doing so, have strengthened law enforcement.

Changes in lineup procedures have been shown to diminish the chances of misidentification. Video recordings of interrogations limit the chances of false confession, which can even be obtained unintentionally. These are both doable actions. They aren’t impossible and they don’t unduly burden law enforcement agencies. They serve the public, as the families of the women Sanchez murdered while Capozzi sat in jail might readily agree.

Two years ago, the Legislature seemed prepared to act, having finally won the support of the state’s prosecutors. But it didn’t act, in effect deciding that it was better to risk sending more innocent people to prison.

This needs to be high on the Legislature’s agenda in 2017, especially that of the Senate, which has been especially recalcitrant. There, Sen. Patrick Gallivan, R-Elma, a former Erie County sheriff and chairman of the Committee on Crime Victims, Crime and Corrections, can make a lasting difference by helping his colleagues see that the issues are critical, resolvable and, ultimately, make for better law enforcement.

No solution will be perfect. Reliable and well-considered systems can restrain the influences of human fallibility, not eliminate them. But it can do that much, diminishing the chances that innocent people will forfeit years of their lives and that others will be murdered while criminals continue to roam the streets.

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