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Wrongful Convictions

With alarming frequency, we are hearing of cases where innocent men and women have spent years behind bars for crimes they have not committed. In most cases, DNA evidence has been their savior, with firm science finally overriding faulty eyewitness testimony or other circumstantial evidence. However, the final victory of a vacated sentence does little to erase the memories or bring back the years lost to prison.

The City Bar therefore supports proposals that generally would mandate a new commission to review cases of former defendants who were subsequently determined to be innocent after a previous conviction, with the purpose of determining the causes of wrongful convictions so they can be avoided in the future.

Despite the City Bar’s belief in the need for such a commission, there have been flaws in previous proposals that need to be addressed. The City Bar does not support a system requiring that a previously convicted individual be “subsequently determined to be innocent” before his or her case will be considered by the commission. This wording leaves out a large segment of cases that are reversed or vacated on other grounds including, insufficiency of evidence adduced at trial, the withholding of exculpatory material by the prosecution, or the erroneous admission of prejudicial evidence. An effective commission should examine any case where a judge believes that there is a real concern that an innocent person has been wrongfully convicted and that commission review would lessen the likelihood of a similar wrongful conviction occurring in the future.

Also of concern to the City Bar are issues of resources and independence. Any proposal must provide the resources necessary to make the commission an effective body that can achieve its goals. To succeed in meeting its responsibilities, a commission would need a sizeable full time staff. The concerns about resources may be somewhat alleviated if the Commission is part of an existing state agency (Division of Criminal Justice Services) and therefore more likely to be sufficiently staffed and funded. However, the City Bar questions whether as an arm of a law enforcement agency, it would be as aggressive as an independent agency in its pursuit of justice and making recommendations.

Without the proper balance of independence and resources, any “wrongful conviction” commission will be unable to achieve its goal of preventing the injustice that occurs when innocent men and women are forced to waste years in prison. We urge the Legislature to make the necessary adjustments to previous proposals and pass much-needed legislation to combat wrongful convictions.