The New York Times by MANNY FERNANDEZ - February 1, 2009
A new examination of wrongful convictions in New York City and around the state found that a number of them stemmed not from DNA evidence being used to prove someone’s innocence, but from a far older phenomenon: human error. The report, released on Friday by the New York State Bar Association, studied the cases of 53 men and women whose convictions were overturned, often after spending years, sometimes decades, in prison for murders, rapes and other crimes they did not commit. It determined that the root causes of the convictions included errors by a prosecutor, judge or member of law enforcement, as well as the misidentification of the accused by victims or witnesses. The mishandling of forensic evidence and a reliance on false confessions from the accused or false testimony from jailhouse informants were also to blame. Fewer than half the cases involved new DNA evidence. Even with the DNA cases, elements of human error were found.
In many of the 53 cases, several factors, not just one, played a role in the wrongful convictions, the report found. Thirty-six cases involved a misidentification by a witness or a victim, and 31 involved errors by prosecutors, judges or law enforcement, it said. “If you were manufacturing widgets, and 53 widgets were defective, it would be acceptable,” said Barry M. Kamins, a Criminal Court judge in Manhattan who was the chair of the state bar association task force that prepared the report. “If you’re dealing in human lives, and 53 people are innocent and serving time for crimes they didn’t commit, that is unacceptable. One is too many, and 53 in New York is unacceptable.” The 53 cases in the report read like a litany of legal missteps. Betty Tyson spent 25 years in prison before her murder conviction was overturned in 1998. She was convicted of strangling a Philadelphia businessman in Rochester in 1973, largely as a result of the testimony of two teenagers who said they had seen her with the victim.
One of the teenagers later recanted his account, and a police report of an interview with the other teenager, in which the witness said he did not see Ms. Tyson with the victim, was suppressed by the police and never given to her lawyers at the time of the trial, according to the report and news accounts. James Walker was convicted in 1971 of murdering an armored car driver in Brooklyn, based on the testimony of an informant. But the report stated that the prosecutor and the lead detective in the case suppressed the fact that the informant had actually implicated a second man and that a surviving victim had seen Mr. Walker in a lineup but selected another person. Mr. Walker served 19 years in prison and was freed in 1990. Bernice K. Leber, the president of the bar association, said the wrongful convictions have not only eroded public confidence in the criminal justice system but have also had a significant, often-overlooked economic impact. A 1984 state law permits lawsuits and damage awards for unjust conviction and imprisonment.
Anthony Faison and Charles Shepherd, two men whose cases were examined, were wrongfully convicted and imprisoned for 14 years in the 1987 shooting death of a livery cab driver in Brooklyn. Their conviction relied on the testimony of a witness who later admitted she had lied to collect a $1,000 reward. In a settlement with the state, Mr. Faison and Mr. Shepherd each received $1.65 million. “These are huge numbers of dollars we’re talking about,” Ms. Leber said. “What kind of toll is that taking on the state? I really do think that this report will be a seismic step and a wake-up call for our legislators and the governor to take a hard look at where these dollars are going.” The report comes amid criticism that New York has failed to do enough to prevent wrongful convictions. Several states have established innocence commissions to review cases and propose legislative and procedural changes, but New York has not. The state also does not require law enforcement agencies to record interrogations, as some other states do. In a statement, Ann Pfau, the state’s chief administrative judge, said, “We look forward to studying the report and working with the bar, legislative leaders, the executive branch and criminal justice professionals on this critical issue.” Paul J. Browne, the New York Police Department’s chief spokesman, said police officials had not had a chance to review the report.
“The N.Y.P.D., as much as anyone — in fact, more than most — is committed to convicting the guilty and exonerating the innocent, and reasonable measures to accomplish both are welcome,” he said in a statement. The task force that prepared the report makes a number of recommendations, including additional training for the police, prosecutors, defense lawyers and judges, as well as changes in how police lineups are conducted. It also calls for interrogations of all felony-level suspects to be electronically recorded, and urges the state to provide financial aid and re-entry services to those exonerated, which Mr. Kamins said is not provided currently. The bar association will hold two public hearings on the report’s findings — one in Manhattan on Feb. 13 and the other in Albany on Feb. 24. The report will then be presented on April 4 to the bar association’s House of Delegates, which will vote on whether to formally adopt it.