innocence blog

A Web log for the Innocence Institute of Point Park University

Monday, February 20, 2006

Wrongful Convictions In PA

This AP Wire Story is republished from the Harrisburg Times:

MARK SCOLFORO
Associated Press
HARRISBURG, Pa. -
Post-conviction DNA testing has demonstrated conclusively that innocent people do get convicted - even of the most serious offenses.

In Pennsylvania, which adopted DNA testing rules in 2002, at least eight "guilty" people have been cleared with the help of DNA testing, according to the Innocence Project, and no one knows how many others remain incarcerated.
Some state lawmakers think a close examination of the string of DNA exonerations could prevent more people from being wrongfully convicted.

The idea behind the Innocence Commission Act, introduced last month by Sen. Stewart J. Greenleaf, R-Montgomery, is to have a panel study those cases and suggest changes to state laws, court procedures or police practices that might cut the error rate.

"We've spent a lot of time in the Legislature, I personally have, adopting some very tough laws in Pennsylvania in regard to violent offenders and sexual offenders and all that. And they should be in jail," said Greenleaf, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. "But if we're going to have tough sentences, then we also have to make sure we're not going to convict innocent people."

His proposal would establish a commission with about 30 members drawn from the state's prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges, corrections officials, police, victim advocates and others.

They would not be starting from scratch. Researchers say they have already identified some patterns, most notably that flawed eyewitness identification often plays a role. Other factors include false confessions, police or prosecutorial misconduct, faulty forensics, reliance on bad informants and poor legal representation.

There are also plenty of ideas about how to fix the system. The state could require police interrogations to be taped, improve independent oversight of crime labs or further streamline access to post-conviction DNA testing. State courts could let experts testify about how eyewitnesses can be wrong.

"It's one thing to say we have an imperfect system," said Duquesne University Law School professor John T. Rago. "But it's another thing to countenance it."

The Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association supports using improvements in technology to reduce errors, but hasn't taken a formal position on the bill, said executive director Mary-Jo Mullen.

"Any effort to improve the system to ensure that innocent people remain innocent is a good thing. District attorneys are out to seek justice - to convict the guilty, not the innocent," she said.

Lock Haven City Police Department Chief Skip Hocker said no "clear thinking, professional, caring police chief" would dispute the need for safeguards to prevent the innocent from being convicted.

But Hocker, president of the Pennsylvania Chiefs of Police Association, is not necessarily ready to embrace mandatory recording of interrogations or changes to how witness lineups are conducted.

"I think the concept is a good one to study. Beyond that, the devil is in the details in how all this shakes out, and what will be acceptable and will not be acceptable to law enforcement," he said.

The 750-member Pennsylvania Association of Criminal
Defense Lawyers, on the other hand, has reacted enthusiastically and given its endorsement.
"It's the best thing that's happened in Pennsylvania in my lifetime," said Easton lawyer Gary Neil Asteak, the association's president. "We spend a lot of time talking about the guilty. How about the innocent who have to deal with the criminal justice system?"

Rago, the Duquesne law professor, said much is at stake.

"If we lose faith in the ability of our criminal justice system, and all of the constitutional safeguards and all of the evidentiary safeguards to separate those who are guilty from those who are not, we will lose touch with one of the core principles of our republic," he said.

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