Lynn DeJac Peters had her life stolen from her, permanently by cancer earlier this month and, prior to that, for almost 14 years by the State of New York. There’s only so much anyone can do about cancer, but there’s a lot that New York can do about sending innocent people to prison. But it won’t – or, at least, it hasn’t.
Albany had the chance to do that this month and, once again, it failed. If that isn’t the secret shame of this boastfully progressive state, then the state is simply beyond shame.
It’s not that New York purposely convicted DeJac Peters of murdering Crystallyn Gerard – her own daughter – knowing she was innocent of the crime. A terrible confluence of human failing and inadequate systems led police, prosecutors, a jury and a judge to believe she had committed one of the worst crimes imaginable. It was due only to the diligence of Buffalo police cold case detectives that this terrible miscarriage of justice was discovered and ultimately accepted by the Erie County District Attorney’s Office.
DeJac Peters was released from prison in 2007. Just two years ago, with the State of New York dragging its heels – par for the course – she was awarded $2.7 million for 14 years of hell on earth she endured because of New York’s mistake.
The issues that lead to many wrongful conviction aren’t a mystery. Principal among them are witness misidentification and false confessions. They are problems caused by human error. What is needed are better systems that will diminish the likelihood those defects will grind up more New Yorkers.
Other states have changed procedures regarding lineups and other identification procedures and have also begun recording interrogations, which helps to guard against false confessions. New York hasn’t done that. It needs to. If DeJac Peters were the only person ever to have been wrongfully convicted, an ethical state government still would be compelled to examine the issues. But she is not the only one. Far from it.
Anthony Capozzi, also of Buffalo, was wrongfully convicted of rape. While he rotted in prison, the real rapist began murdering women in Western New York. The man suspected of killing Crystallyn, Dennis P. Donohue, is now in prison for murdering Buffalo resident Joan Giambra – nine months after Crystallyn was killed. There is a cost for failing to come to grips with this problem, and it is measured in blood. New York shrugs.
Only this month, another infamous case of wrongful conviction was finally settled. In 1989, five New York City teenagers were wrongfully convicted in the notorious Central Park Five case. The teens, some of whom falsely confessed while under intense police pressure, were convicted of a brutal assault on a jogger in Central Park. In 2002 the convictions were overturned because the men – they were no longer teenagers – were innocent. Someone else had committed the crime. Their civil case was settled only this month for a total of about $41 million – 12 years after their exonerations.
In his State of the State address, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo recognized the problems in New York’s criminal justice system and pushed for reforms.
A deal had been taking shape in Albany this month to make a decent start on dealing with the issues of misidentification and false confession, but in the rush to end the session, and apparently over concerns about the costs of recording equipment, it didn’t happen. Again.
Some reports suggest the issue could be taken up in a fall session of the Legislature. It needs to be. Albany doesn’t understand – or doesn’t care – that every delay puts more innocent people at risk, not only for wrongful conviction, but for being victimized by someone who should have been sent to prison but escaped notice because the wrong person was convicted.