(NEW YORK, NY; October 18, 2007) – A report released today by the Innocence Project shows that New York outpaces almost every other state in the number of wrongful convictions overturned by DNA testing – but lags behind most other states in implementing policy reforms that can prevent wrongful convictions.
The 118-page report, titled “Lessons Not Learned,” details 23 wrongful convictions in New York that have been overturned through DNA evidence, analyzes each case to identify the causes of wrongful convictions and outlines reforms that can improve the state’s criminal justice system.
Download the full report here
“Every exoneration is a learning moment that can deepen our understanding of the criminal justice system’s shortcomings and provide a roadmap for restoring integrity and confidence in the system,” the report found. “Despite the large number of DNA exonerations – particularly since 2000 – and despite the fact that these 23 DNA exonerations are only the tip of the iceberg since so few cases involve DNA, New York has not learned the lessons of these exonerations and taken action to prevent future injustice.”
Several of the reforms outlined in the report are currently awaiting action in the New York State Legislature, which failed to act on them earlier this year. They address the causes of wrongful convictions and provide mechanisms for wrongfully convicted people to prove their innocence (which also help identify the true perpetrators of crimes).
“There is no doubt that wrongful convictions are a problem in New York, yet the legislative, executive and judicial branches have not implemented reforms that are proven to enhance the criminal justice system,” said Peter Neufeld, Co-Director of the Innocence Project, which is affiliated with Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University. “Many other states have begun to address and prevent wrongful convictions, and it’s well past time for New York to take steps that can improve public safety and restore confidence in the criminal justice system.”
Westchester County District Attorney Janet DiFiore, who earlier this year released a far-reaching analysis of the factors that went into the wrongful conviction and ultimate exoneration of Jeffrey Deskovic for a 1989 Peekskill murder he did not commit, said the Innocence Project report underscored that the criminal justice system must embrace “the expectation of fairness.” The report commissioned by DiFiore is included as an appendix in “Lessons Not Learned.”
“As prosecutors, our obligation is to vigorously search for the truth and aggressively prosecute the guilty, and the justification that gives us the moral, as well as the legal authority, to do so is that we just as vigorously protect the rights of the innocent,” said DiFiore.
The findings in “Lessons Not Learned,” released today, include:
• In the last seven years, there has been a particularly high number of DNA exonerations in New York State. Since 2000, 17 wrongfully convicted people in New York have been exonerated with DNA evidence; seven of the 17 were wrongfully convicted of murder.
• In 10 of New York’s 23 DNA exonerations, the actual perpetrator was later identified.
• In nine of those 10 cases, the actual perpetrators of crimes for which innocent people were wrongfully convicted went on to commit additional crimes while an innocent person was in prison. According to law enforcement reports, five murders, seven rapes, two serious assaults and one robbery at gunpoint were committed by the actual perpetrators of crimes for which innocent people were committed – and each of those crimes was committed after the wrongful arrest or conviction, so they could have been prevented if wrongful convictions had not happened.
• Eyewitness misidentification played a role in 13 of the 23 wrongful convictions in New York that were overturned with DNA testing.
• In 10 of the 23 cases in New York, innocent people falsely confessed or admitted to crimes that DNA later proved they did not commit.
• Limited or unreliable forensic science played a role in 10 of the 23 wrongful convictions in New York that were overturned through DNA evidence.
The report recommends that New York State’s legislative, executive and judicial branches:
• Ensure proper preservation, cataloguing and retention of biological evidence.
• Avoid placing limits regarding when DNA can be retested to establish the innocence of the wrongfully convicted (or when other evidence of innocence can be introduced that could prove innocence post-conviction).
• Enable defendants to obtain comparisons of crime scene evidence to forensic databases.
• Require videotaping of custodial interrogations in their entirety.
• Mandate implementation of eyewitness identification procedures that are proven to increase accuracy and minimize the likelihood of misidentifications.
• Establish an independent commission to examine the causes of wrongful convictions and propose remedies to prevent them.
The report also outlines how New York stacks up against other states in implementing reforms to address and prevent wrongful convictions:
• Six states – but not New York – have formed Innocence Commissions to identify the causes of wrongful convictions and develop remedies to prevent them. All but one of those states (Illinois) have far fewer wrongful convictions overturned through DNA than New York does.
• 22 states – but not New York – have statutes mandating the preservation of crime scene evidence. The 22 states with such laws include California, Florida, Texas, Virginia, Oklahoma, Montana and Kentucky.
• 33 states do not place time limits on when post-conviction DNA testing can be conducted to prove innocence. A proposal advanced in New York State earlier this year would impose time limits.
• 17 states – but not New York – considered legislation this year to improve eyewitness identification procedures. Bills passed in five states and made progress in seven others.
• Nine states – but not New York – require at least some interrogations to be recorded (either through state statute or ruling of the state high court). In addition, more than 500 local jurisdictions record at least some interrogations. Even though more people have been exonerated by DNA after falsely confessing to crimes in New York than in any other state, only two of these 500 local jurisdictions are in New York State.