Sunday, February 8, 2009

Examining Human Error in Wrongful Convictions

Examining Human Error in Wrongful Convictions
That's the title of an article in the New York Times by Manny Fernandez. LINK

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.

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.

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