innocence blog

A Web log for the Innocence Institute of Point Park University

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

To Protect the Innocent

This article by Pete Shellum is republished in its entirety from the January 24th edition of the Harrisburg Patriot News:

Citing at least eight wrongful convictions in Pennsylvania in which the defendants served a combined total of 110 years in prison before being cleared by DNA evidence, the chairman of the state Senate Judiciary Committee yesterday said he wants to create a commission to examine those failures of the justice system.

Sen. Stewart J. Greenleaf cited cases like that of Barry Laughman, who spent 16 years in prison before a Patriot-News investigation found DNA evidence that cleared him of murder.

Greenleaf said such cases need to be thoroughly investigated to determine what went wrong and how to prevent it from happening again.

"All we want is justice," Greenleaf said. "We want the guilty to be punished and the innocent to be exonerated."

Greenleaf, a Montgomery County Republican who was the driving force behind 1992 legislation that allowed convicts to seek DNA testing if it could prove their innocence, was accompanied by Thomas A. Doswell of Pittsburgh, who was released from prison in August after 19 years for a rape DNA showed he didn't commit.

"I'm glad this bill has a chance to help other Thomas Doswells who are undoubtedly still in the system," he said.

Under Greenleaf's legislation, which was introduced with 12 co-sponsors, the commission would be made up of lawyers, police, judges and others involved with criminal justice issues.

It will examine cases and make recommendations for corrective measures through legislation or the judicial system, Greenleaf said. He said the commission will make use of existing senate staff.

There are only five states with more documented DNA exonerations than Pennsylvania, said Prof. John Rago, a law professor at Duquesne University who helped with the creation of the legislation.

There are eight documented exonerations from DNA in the state. A ninth man, Harold C. Wilson was released from death row after 10 years and was acquitted by a Philadelphia jury in just 15 minutes after his attorney presented DNA evidence at his second trial.

"This isn't about assigning fault," Rago said. "This is about seeing victims get justice. We can now look at these cases with complete moral certainty and figure out what we did right and what we did wrong."

Nationally, 172 people have been exonerated through the use of post-conviction DNA testing, Greenleaf said. Greenleaf's proposal is modeled after commissions that have been established in other states.

A public hearing on the bill will be held next Monday. Greenleaf said he didn't expect any opposition from prosecutors or police.

Dauphin County District Attorney Edward M. Marsico Jr. said while law enforcement officers are constantly examining their procedures, he welcomed the proposal.

"Certainly a study that could help us better investigate crimes and learn from cases where mistakes were made seems like a good idea," Marsico said.

PETE SHELLEM: 255-8156 or


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