News 06.20.11

Innocence Project Concerned that Reforms to Prevent Wrongful Convictions Are Being Abandoned in End of Session Efforts to Expand the DNA Database

Justice Task Force Recommendations Cast Aside in Push to Expand Database by District Attorneys

Contact:  Paul Cates, 212-364-5346, cell 917-566-1294, pcates@innocenceproject.org

(NEW YORK, NY; June 20, 2011) The Innocence Project is urging the New York Assembly to reject a bill that would expand the New York DNA database without provisions to prevent wrongful convictions.   

“The Innocence Project supports the legislation filed year after year by Assembly Chairman Lentol, which couples responsible DNA database expansion with reforms to prevent wrongful convictions,” said Barry Scheck, Co-director of the Innocence Project, which is affiliated with Cardozo School of Law.  “Chief Judge Lippman appointed the Justice Task Force that has been hard at work on these issues with an eye toward passing a comprehensive reform package next year.  But the District Attorneys Association is leading an end-of-session ambush in Albany to expand the database that undermines the important reforms that Chief Judge Lipmann and the New York State Bar Association have identified as necessary.”  

Scheck added, “We are not opposed to responsible database expansion as long as it guarantees people with innocence claims access to the database and includes privacy protections, including protections against unsupervised investigations of ‘partial’ matches that may implicate relatives of people who are in the database.”  

At stake in the end-of-session negotiations are criminal justice reforms that have been proven to prevent wrongful convictions, including interrogation reforms that require police to record the entire interrogation when a suspect is being questioned and requiring the preservation of biological evidence from crime scenes, which is critical to enabling the wrongfully convicted to prove their innocence and in solving cold cases.  These are among the issues central to the identification and prevention of wrongful convictions that the District Attorneys Association would like to see abandoned.     

“The District Attorneys Association claims that we need database expansion to save lives, but preventing wrongful convictions saves lives too,” said Scheck.  “In the DNA exonerations, we’ve seen time and again where the real perpetrator remained at large committing other crimes while an innocent person was locked away in prison.  It is short sided for district attorneys to say that we should put aside substantial innocence reforms that would prevent grave injustices for a quick expansion of the DNA databases.  This is not a constructive initiative and undermines the long term criminal justice reforms we all seek.”

The case of

Jeff Deskovic

from Peekskill, New York is just one case that illustrates the danger of wrongful convictions.  At 16, Deskovic was convicted of raping and killing his classmate in 1990 largely on the strength of a confession that was obtained after hours in police custody.  DNA testing later proved that Deskovic was innocent of the rape and had falsely confessed to the crime.  Had police been required to follow best practices for interrogations, it’s possible they could have apprehended the real perpetrator, Steven Cunningham, before he went on to murder Westchester resident Patricia Morrison.  

Innocence reforms similar to those being proposed by the Justice Task Force have recently passed in Texas, Ohio and other states.

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