It was a banner year for criminal justice, depending on how you look at it. Across the country, 31 people were exonerated of crimes of which they were innocent. They had been arrested, tried and convicted wrongfully. Three of them – nearly 10 percent of the total – had been convicted in New York.
Freeing the wrongfully convicted is practically an industry in the United States. Because of several persistent factors, there has been no drop in the number of cases coming to offices of organizations devoted to exonerating the innocent. Indeed, the 31 people freed this year – one of them just last month – is the largest number of people exonerated in the five years that the Innocence Network has been issuing its annual report (bit.ly/1llGXrL).
The factors that lead to wrongful conviction are not in dispute; they have been carefully documented. The leading one is witness misidentification, the error that put Anthony Capozzi of Buffalo in prison for 22 years for rapes he did not commit.
As it happened, Capozzi bore some resemblance to the actual rapist, Altemio Sanchez, of whom police were also initially suspicious. Still, had the necessary reforms been in place, the identification procedure would have been conducted differently.
Would that have saved Capozzi from his hellish fate? It’s hard to say, but combined with his alibi and suspicions about Sanchez, it is certainly possible. Then, Sanchez would have been off the streets, unable to metamorphose, as he did, from Delaware Park Rapist to Bike Path Killer.
Other causes of wrongful conviction include faulty forensics, false confessions and incentivized informant testimony, in which someone, usually in trouble with the law, is given consideration for testifying against others.
While misconduct by police, prosecutors and defense lawyers also contributes to wrongful convictions, it is not among the leading causes. Those cases of misconduct, to a great extent, are a problem of imperfect human nature for which there are only imperfect solutions.
But witness misidentification, false confession and other of the more common causes of wrongful conviction are, to a great extent, problems of procedure, and procedures can be changed to diminish the chances of sending an innocent person to prison.
Thus the push – adopted in some states, but not New York – to change the way witness identification is handled, to guard against misidentification. That is also why some states – but not New York – require the recording of all interrogations. That guards against false confession, which sometimes occurs when police inadvertently feed to a suspect details of a crime that only the perpetrator would know.
There is simply no good reason not to adopt these reforms, yet New York refuses. That’s because the State Senate will not act.
Apparently worried about being perceived as soft on crime, the Senate shows itself content to do nothing in the face of such atrocities as befell Capozzi and the women that Sanchez was thereafter free to murder.
It’s time to act. The state needs to move on these issues in 2014.