Lise Bang-Jensen, New York State Bar Association,
Paul Cates, Innocence Project,
ALBANY, NY – Leaders from the Innocence Project and the New York State Bar Association, saying the innocent should not be punished for crimes committed by others, today called on state legislators to enact reforms that truly would reduce wrongful convictions and improve public safety.
At a joint press conference, Peter Neufeld, co-director of the Innocence Project, which is affiliated with Cardozo School of Law, and Vincent E. Doyle III, president of the Bar Association, said the proposal to expand the DNA database does not go far enough to prevent innocent people from going to prison while the real perpetrators remain free to commit other crimes.
Neufeld and Doyle were joined at the press conference by Assembly Codes Committee Chair Joseph R. Lentol, sponsor of wrongful conviction legislation; Steven Barnes, Fernando Bermudez and Frank Sterling, who were each exonerated after being incarcerated for nearly two decades for separate crimes; and Sylvia Bouchard, Barnes’ mother, who discussed the impact of wrongful convictions on family members.
In his remarks, Neufeld said a comprehensive package that complements the DNA expansion will go further to prevent wrongful convictions than the DNA expansion alone.
“Expanding the database is only going to have a marginal effect on the number of new crimes solved and will be virtually no help to the overwhelming majority of the wrongly convicted whose cases simply lack biological evidence,” said Neufeld. “If lawmakers are serious about their desire to prevent wrongful convictions and improve public safety, they will pass a reform package that improves police investigation practices to ensure that the right person is convicted.”
“DNA is a potent law enforcement tool. But expanding the DNA database alone will not exonerate the innocent and convict the guilty,” said Doyle of Buffalo (Connors & Vilardo). As evidence, he pointed to the findings of a 2009 State Bar report which studied the cases of 53 innocent New Yorkers who were convicted of crimes they did not commit.
The Bar Association’s Task Force on Wrongful Convictions identified several factors contributing to wrongful convictions. It recommended: videotaping interrogations in order to discourage coerced confessions; improving police lineups to achieve more accurate eyewitness testimony; requiring prosecutors to turn over more evidence that might help clear a suspect; and allowing defendants to obtain DNA evidence even after they have pleaded guilty.
Assembly Codes Committee Chair Joseph Lentol, a longtime supporter of wrongful conviction legislation, said that when the wrong person is convicted of a crime, all New Yorkers suffer.
“The person who is wrongly convicted is unjustly punished. The victim is given a false sense of security and has to relive the crime a second time when the truth comes out. And we are all put at risk when the real perpetrator is left free to commit other crimes,” he said.
The Wrongfully Convicted
Frank Sterling spent more than 17 years in prison for a Rochester murder he didn’t commit before he was exonerated by DNA evidence in 2010. While he was incarcerated, the real perpetrator, Mark Christie, went on to murder a 4-year-old girl.
Fernando Bermudez spent more than 18 years in prison in the shooting death of a 16-year-old boy in Greenwich Village. His conviction was based on the testimony of eyewitnesses who later recanted. There was no DNA evidence in his case, but he was ultimately freed after it was proven that police and prosecutors manipulated the eyewitness evidence against him.
“I spent years fighting for my freedom and was ultimately able to prove my innocence without DNA. Most people aren’t so fortunate,” said Bermudez. “I can’t even believe that New York lawmakers are thinking of expanding the database without enacting meaningful reforms that would actually prevent wrongful convictions. No one should have to endure what I did, especially when these reforms can make the system better.”
Steven Barnes served 19 years for the rape and strangulation of a 16-year-old girl near Utica. His conviction was based on faulty eyewitness testimony, a jailhouse snitch and questionable evidence collection. DNA ultimately proved he did not commit the crime.
“If being wrongly convicted can happen to me, it can happen to anyone,” he said. “And it didn’t just affect my life, it destroyed my entire family. I sincerely hope that this is finally the year that our elected officials pass the wrongful convictions reforms that affect all New Yorkers.”
The Innocence Project, a nonprofit public policy and litigation organization affiliated with the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University, is dedicated to exonerating the wrongfully convicted through DNA testing and reforming the criminal justice system to prevent future injustice.
The 77,000-member New York State Bar Association is the largest voluntary state bar association in the United States. It was founded in 1876.