December 19, 2007
By Stephen Saloom, Ruthland Harald
In the next few days, leading experts from across Vermont will release recommendations on how to improve the state's criminal justice system by preventing wrongful convictions.
The proposals developed by these experts have the potential to make the state's system of justice stronger and more accurate. If they take this opportunity to strengthen public safety and protect innocent people from wrongful convictions — instead of protecting the status quo — they will have fulfilled their mission as outlined by the state Legislature.
The experts' work stems from a groundbreaking package of reforms the state Legislature passed earlier this year. I testified in support of these bills, along with a Massachusetts man who was wrongfully convicted of three rapes and served 19 years in prison before DNA proved his innocence.
To prevent such miscarriages of justice — and to advance public safety by making sure true perpetrators of crimes are apprehended — the legislation created expert task forces to determine how to prevent eyewitness misidentification and false confessions, two of the leading causes of wrongful convictions. It also created a task force to determine how to best preserve biological evidence (which can later be subjected to DNA testing) and passed a new law providing convicted people with access to DNA testing when it could demonstrate their innocence.
Together, these bills begin to put Vermont in line with other states that are taking critical, concrete steps that are proven to address and prevent wrongful convictions. But the legislation was just the first step; the next critical phase for improving the state's criminal justice system will come with task force recommendations.
The stakes are high, as illustrated by the 209 post-conviction DNA exonerations nationwide. Each of these cases represents a personal tragedy but, as importantly, each provides an opportunity to understand what in the criminal investigation process causes police, prosecutors and juries to believe that an innocent person is guilty of a crime he did not commit. By reviewing these cases, the Innocence Project has learned what causes wrongful convictions. Eyewitness misidentification was a factor in 75 percent of those cases; false confessions or admissions contributed to 25 percent of them.
Many cities and states have already implemented simple reforms that are proven to decrease wrongful convictions, and the task forces developing recommendations for Vermont can learn from other states' experiences.
The Eyewitness Identification and Recording of Interrogations task force has reviewed information from jurisdictions nationwide that are already using eyewitness identification procedures that minimize incorrect identifications. They've learned about the 500 jurisdictions across the country that record interrogations to prevent false confessions or admissions. The task force has also seen volumes of strong scientific research showing that these reforms are effective. Perhaps most importantly, the task force members have learned that cities and states that have adopted these simple, straight-forward reforms are extremely pleased with how they are working.
Meanwhile, the Preservation of Evidence task force is learning how innocent people can be exonerated — and "cold" cases can be solved — through common-sense changes in procedures. Federal legislation championed by U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy in recent years has led other states to preserve biological evidence and provide statutory access to post-conviction DNA testing. Under this federal legislation, Vermont will qualify for federal grant funds — if the task forces develop strong recommendations.
There is solid support for improving Vermont's criminal justice system. The legislation that passed earlier this year was spearheaded by the Senate and House Judiciary Committees, and Jane Woodruff of the Department of State's Attorneys and Sheriffs is leading both of the task forces looking closely at how to best address these issues.
Since the task forces were formed, five more innocent people have been exonerated through DNA evidence. The state Legislature and the task forces are positioned to prevent such injustice in Vermont. The opportunity to enhance the state's criminal justice system is in their hands. In the next few days, we'll find out what they choose to do with it.
Stephen Saloom is the policy director at the Innocence Project, a national litigation and public policy organization that uses DNA to exonerate wrongfully convicted people and pursues criminal justice reforms to prevent future injustice.