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By Barry Scheck
May 19, 2014 Newsday - With 29 exonerations since 1989, New York State has the third-largest number of wrongful convictions overturned by DNA testing in the country.
Of those, five have been from Nassau and Suffolk. The wrongful convictions have occurred all over the state -- including Westchester, New York City, Oneida, Rochester, Syracuse and Buffalo. And these are only the DNA exonerations.
The state is also a leader in wrongful convictions proven by non-DNA evidence. In fact, there have been 10 New York exonerations in 2014. Just this month, three men were exonerated in Brooklyn, the unfortunate victims of retired Det. Louis Scarcella, a now-discredited police officer whom the Brooklyn district attorney's office recognizes engaged in improper procedures that resulted in false confessions, unreliable eyewitness identifications and fabricated informant testimony. The lives of innocent defendants were wrecked, their families were torn asunder and victims were cruelly deceived. Even more troubling, there are reportedly more than 50 Scarcella cases among the 90 or so potential wrongful-conviction cases being considered by the new Brooklyn district attorney.
There are proven reforms that would prevent such injustices. For instance, requiring blind lineups -- meaning the officers are unaware of the suspect's identity -- would eliminate the possibility of influencing the witness; and electronically recording interrogations would create a record juries can use to better determine whether statements were coerced. In legislative session after session, including the current one in Albany, wrongful-conviction reform bills have been filed, yet tragically there has been no consensus to make them law.
But it's not as if there has been a lack of recognition by our leaders. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo demanded the reform of eyewitness identification procedures and videotaping interrogations in his 2013 State of the State speech. Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman's New York State Justice Task Force has recommended the same. The New York State Bar Association has pushed for the reforms for years. The Assembly has passed wrongful-conviction reform legislation nearly every year for the past decade. And Mayor Bill de Blasio and Police Commissioner William Bratton support policing that earns the community's respect.
New York lags behind many states in requiring the use of police practices proven by scientific research to prevent wrongful convictions. New Jersey and Connecticut require that police use the eyewitness identification procedures proven to enhance the accuracy of eyewitness evidence. Twenty-one states require that interrogations in serious cases be videotaped. The nation's largest police organization, the International Association of Chiefs of Police, has endorsed both reforms. And editorials and op-eds in support of reform have appeared for years.
The Innocence Project has pursued these reforms in New York State for nearly a decade. We have made progress, and at times felt as if we were close. Not surprisingly, resistance has largely come from law enforcement. But that resistance is diminishing in part due to the leadership of Nassau District Attorney Kathleen Rice, who leads the state's District Attorneys Association. New York City's decision to record interrogations in serious felony cases, a practice in Nassau and Suffolk, has also helped.
Every year the state delays these reforms, innocent people go to prison for crimes they didn't commit while the real perpetrators remain free to commit more crimes. It's time for leadership in Albany to get past gridlock and make 2014 the year New York finally commits to a more reliable, effective and just criminal justice system.