October 18, 2007
By Fernanda Santos, New York Times
Although more convicts have been exonerated by DNA evidence in New York than in most other states, New York is one of only a few states across the nation that have not enacted comprehensive legislative reforms to prevent wrongful convictions, according to a report by a high-profile legal clinic scheduled to be released today.
Since 1989, when DNA evidence was first used to free an innocent person, there have been 23 exonerations in New York, the report said, placing it behind just Texas and Illinois, which have had 29 and 27 exonerations, respectively. Nationwide, 208 people have been exonerated through DNA evidence.
The report sheds a harsh light on what it calls the state’s lackluster record of instituting rules intended to prevent wrongful convictions. For example, it says that although false confessions are the leading cause of wrongful convictions in New York, the state does not require law enforcement agencies to record interrogations, a requirement in nine other states.
“Not only has there been political opposition to enacting strong reform in New York State, but regrettably, too many key figures in law enforcement have played the pitiful role of old dogs unwilling to learn new tricks,” said Peter J. Neufeld, co-director of the Innocence Project, a legal clinic based at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law in New York, , which prepared the report.
The clinic is the nation’s leader in securing exonerations for the wrongfully convicted.
Currently, law enforcement agencies in only two counties in the state, Broome and Schenectady, videotape at least portions of custodial interrogations — as part of a pilot program run by the New York State Bar Association. Across the country, 500 local law enforcement agencies require full or partial recording of interrogations, the report says.
Twenty-two states have laws requiring the preservation of crime-scene evidence like semen and saliva samples, which are frequently used for DNA analysis. But in New York, there is no such law, and forensic evidence is often lost, destroyed or misplaced, delaying or defeating attempts by those who were wrongfully convicted to prove their innocence, the report said. In addition, six states, including Illinois, have established independent bodies — commonly known as innocence commissions — to review wrongful convictions, identify what caused them and propose procedural and legislative changes to keep such errors from happening again, the report said.
In 10 of New York’s wrongful convictions other criminals were identified, in most cases someone who committed other crimes while innocent people served time in prison in their place, Mr. Neufeld said.
“Clearly, the cost to society for allowing these real perpetrators to remain at liberty is incalculable,” he added.
The State Assembly passed a package of bills this year that included measures requiring interrogations to be videotaped and forensic evidence to be preserved and cataloged in a more orderly way.
The bills would also clarify existing law to make clear that judges have the authority to order comparisons between evidence used against a defendant and evidence stored in DNA and fingerprint databases. Gov. Eliot Spitzer introduced a competing package, which the Senate approved but the Assembly did not, saying the governor’s proposed reforms did not go far enough. Negotiations stalled, and the legislative bodies were unable to reconcile their differences.
Christine Anderson, a spokeswoman for Governor Spitzer, said the governor would not comment on the Innocence Project report until it was officially released.
Craig J. Miller, a spokesman for Republican Senator Dale M. Volker, who represents several counties in western New York and is chairman of the Senate Codes Committee, which plays a significant role in shaping the state’s criminal laws, said the Senate was not “inherently opposed” to reforms suggested by the Assembly, “but the devil is in the details.”
He added, “A lot of these reforms are going to cost a lot of money, so considering that the state is looking at a deficit in the coming fiscal year, we’re going to be looking at difficult choices.
“These are great ideas, but we need to carefully vet them out, flesh them out, see how much they’re going to cost and act appropriately,” Mr. Miller said.
Assemblyman Joseph R. Lentol, a Brooklyn Democrat who sponsored the Assembly’s package, said, “You cannot put a value” on correcting verdicts “that led to an innocent person losing a chunk of time of his life and languishing in prison.”
Mr. Lentol added, “In modern society, we should be interested that only the guilty pay for crimes.”