Monday, November 5, 2007

New policies are needed to halt unjust convictions

November 4, 2007

By Katherine Ramsland, for The Philadelphia Inquirer

When the U.S. Supreme Court mandated the Miranda warning in 1966, it did so to protect the public against coerced self-incrimination. But some law-enforcement agencies resisted. They said that articulating those rights hampered their ability to get confessions and released more criminals on technicalities. In other words, if an arresting officer forgot the warning or failed to notice that the subject was not competent enough to waive protected rights, the case could be tossed.

Now we are seeing a host of new policy changes on the horizon. These changes will help minimize false convictions. And again, we see resistance from the very people who should care most about justice for all. It is almost as if the law-enforcement establishment believes it is more important to convict and then let the system sort it out. But those who believe this have not fully grasped the harm some current procedures have perpetrated on the innocent. Law enforcement should welcome - not reject - changes designed to protect.

The main problem is that many innocent people have been convicted. The number we know of is very large, and - given the problems discovered with formerly accepted legal procedures and certain types of evidence - it stands to reason that many more innocents are serving time or possibly have been executed.

Proposed changes in courts around the country directly address this issue. They include: improved procedures for the identification of suspects, including expanded use of DNA technologies; improved efforts to corroborate information given by informants or "snitches"; and higher standards for crime labs. Some long-enshrined procedures are now being reviewed with a newly critical eye. For example, research in psychology for more than a century has proven repeatedly that eyewitness testimony (a leading factor in false convictions) is fallible. Finally, officials are listening.

And yet there is still resistance in many law-enforcement circles.

Here are some sobering statistics from the Innocence Project at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University. Since 1989, this group has freed 208 men via postconviction DNA analysis on biological samples from their supposed crimes. Fifteen were on death row, facing execution for something they did not do. The average length of time served was 12 years, with many in prison for more than two decades. The total number of known years served by the innocent is a staggering 2,563. And these are just the statistics for the small percentage of cases in which biological evidence was involved (and testable), and for which the overburdened personnel at the Innocence Project had time. They currently have tens of thousands of letters in their files from inmates begging for help.

Here's just one example of how the system broke down. In Texas, Roy Criner received a prison term in 1990 of 99 years for the rape and killing of a teenage girl. Later, he submitted to DNA testing, and the results excluded him as the rapist. The Texas Court of Appeals, however, ruled this evidence would have made no difference to the conviction, so he remained in prison.

Then a local reporter found more evidence of Criner's innocence. A cigarette butt, previously discounted, was tested for DNA. The test result proved that the person who had smoked it had been the rapist-murderer - and that this person was not Criner. After serving 10 years for a crime he did not commit, he finally was set free.

"It breaks you down." Those are the words of one exonerated convict in the documentary movie After Innocence. It features cases such as that of Nick Yarris, who spent 22 years on Pennsylvania's death row for murder. Even after he was freed, he could not persuade the prosecutor to send the DNA profile that had exonerated him to a national database to assist in identifying the real killer.

It is almost as if law enforcement does not want to identify and exonerate the innocent. Eight states do not yet mandate giving inmates postconviction access to DNA analysis. Five states defeated bills intended to change policies on eyewitness identification. The California State Sheriff's Association opposes bills that require officials to record interrogations and corroborate informant information; the purported fear is that such procedures would create loopholes for defense attorneys to exploit. This organization also opposes new procedures for suspect lineups. Research has revealed that witnesses, when asked to pick from lineups, make comparisons among those lined up, which can alter their memory. Or they may simply choose the one who "looks" criminal. (The recent study by the Chicago police department that "proved" that current methods worked just fine was significantly flawed.)

Even if the system releases the innocent, it sometimes seems to wish to punish them somehow anyway. The conviction records of many exonerated individuals are not expunged, making it difficult for them to find employment and even a place to live. Their most productive work years are lost, and they can expect little or no assistance with integration back into the community. A few have received payouts from successful lawsuits, but most have nothing. Some say it was easier for them in prison.

It seems that some of our sworn protectors would rather protect themselves. Why else would they resist policy changes arising from verified harm? These system failures ought to disappoint law-enforcement personnel, as they did Gov. George Ryan in Illinois. Upon learning that 13 men on Illinois' death row had been exonerated, Ryan commuted the sentences of all death-row inmates because he recognized that changes were needed.

The English jurist William Blackstone famously said: "Better that 10 guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer." Apparently that's literary fluff to some people. They should talk to exonerated convicts. Of course, we should expect collateral damage within any human institution, but if we have identified ways to reduce it, we should utilize them. It is shocking that officials entrusted with public safety would worry more about technical slip-ups that might free a guilty person than about errors that repeatedly have victimized the innocent.


Katherine Ramsland teaches forensic psychology at DeSales University. She has published 30 books, including "The CSI Effect."

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