Once again, an Erie County resident has been exonerated of charges on which he was wrongly convicted. Nathanial A. Johnson spent nearly four years in prison for an armed robbery he did not commit. And still, Albany cannot find the courage – or even the common sense – to adopt the reforms that would make New York’s criminal justice system more just. What exactly do lawmakers need before they can act?
Perhaps it’s just that the wrongfully convicted have no powerful lobby to support them. What’s four years – or five or 15 or 20 – in prison, anyway? So what if innocent people are trapped behind bars while the actual criminals remain free to rob, rape and murder?
It’s a serious matter. While Anthony Capozzi of Buffalo spent 22 years in prison for rapes he did not commit, the real rapist, Altemio Sanchez, continued attacking women and soon progressed to murder as the Bike Path Killer. His victims might well be alive today if the reforms now being pushed in Albany were in force then. What other victims await because of the Legislature’s indifference?
Capozzi had been misidentified as the rapist by Sanchez’s victims, and from that moment his fate was sealed. Johnson was also wrongly identified by the victim of the robbery, and his conviction was further cemented by sloppy police work and a shady deal made by the prosecution with a witness facing a drug charge.
Witness misidentification is, in fact, the most common cause of wrongful conviction. Something can be done about that, and about another leading cause, the false confession. All that is required is the will to act.
Those reforms include changes in the way police conduct lineups. Witness identifications are notoriously unreliable, especially from victims who were under great stress at the moment of the crime, perhaps even with a gun aimed at them.
An inappropriately conducted lineup can not only lead the witness in a particular direction – purposely or not – but it can also solidify that identification in the mind of the victim who longs for justice but who may initially have been uncertain. “It’s like trace evidence,” said Stephen Saloom, policy director for the Innocence Project in New York City. Once you contaminate an identification, you can’t restore it.
Similarly, video recording of interrogations guards against the phenomenon of false confession, in which a suspect, often under unrelenting pressure and perhaps emotionally or mentally impaired, tells investigators what they want to hear in a vain effort to end their suffering.
These kinds of reforms have been adopted in other states, Saloom said, and none has backed away from them. They work. They produce better detectives and better law enforcement. They help keep innocent people out of prison.
Both Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and the Assembly have favored reform efforts in these areas. The problem is in the State Senate, where members seem unable to comprehend that preventing wrongful conviction is a law-and-order issue, and a powerful one.
Saloom believes senators are waiting for the state’s district attorneys to lead the way before they will approve any legislation, but that’s allowing the tail to wag the dog. What is more, the reforms being pushed in New York are the product of a committee that was heavy with law enforcement members. There is no justification for continued delay.
One state senator, Patrick Gallivan, R-Elma, is Erie County’s former sheriff. With so many wrongful convictions in his home county – a third recent one was of Lynn DeJac Peters, wrongfully convicted of murdering her daughter – he could be a powerful voice of reason in the Senate, and, indeed, he should be. His resume confers on him a responsibility and his leadership could make a difference.
Johnson was saved from even more time in prison largely because a friend wouldn’t let the case drop. That was his good fortune, but innocent people should not have to depend upon that. The state of New York should be on their side and, as of today, the state doesn’t much care.