The Exonerated and Their Families in New York State Call for Legislative Reforms to Improve Criminal Justice
‘This is some of the important work that New Yorkers want their legislators to act on swiftly,’ Innocence Project says
(NEW YORK, NY; June 18, 2009) – In an unprecedented appeal to elected officials, scores of wrongfully convicted people who have been exonerated and their family members sent letters today to each member of New York State’s Senate and Assembly urging them to enact reforms that can improve the state’s criminal justice system.
“We are living, breathing proof that New York’s criminal justice system has failed again and again. Our cases show how the system is falling short and how it can be fixed,” a letter signed by 13 New Yorkers who were exonerated through DNA testing says. Read the full letter here.
For months, leaders in the New York Legislature and Governor David Paterson’s office have been engaged in serious discussions about which reforms to act on before the end of June. While the current uncertainty in the New York Senate has complicated those discussions, a package of reforms can still be passed that would protect innocent defendants while also helping law enforcement identify and apprehend actual perpetrators of crime.
“This is some of the important work that New Yorkers want their legislators to act on swiftly. These letters from the exonerated and their families across New York State make the profound and deeply personal case that the legislature needs to move forward on criminal justice reform quickly,” said Maddy deLone, Executive Director of the Innocence Project, which is affiliated with Cardozo School of Law.
The package of reforms includes improving lineups and other eyewitness identification procedures statewide, requiring that interrogations in felony cases be recorded, and strengthening the quality of scientific evidence. The reforms would also make it easier to get DNA testing when it can prove innocence, create systems for preserving evidence in criminal cases, and provide adequate, immediate compensation to people when they are exonerated.
“If they were in place years ago, these policies could have prevented our wrongful convictions or helped exonerate us sooner,” the 13 New Yorkers freed through DNA testing told legislators in their letter today. They served a combined 163 years in prison for crimes they did not commit. “We lost a lot because of wrongful convictions – education, careers, time with our families and basic freedoms that other people take for granted. We lost the best years of our lives. Once exonerated, we gained a resolve to help fix the system responsible for our wrongful incarceration. We don’t want anyone else to go through what we did.”
There have been 24 wrongful convictions overturned through DNA evidence in New York State. Only two other states in the nation, Texas and Illinois, have seen more DNA exonerations. The Innocence Project released a report earlier this month showing that New York lags behind other states in enacting reforms to improve the criminal justice system. The report found that in 10 of the 24 DNA exonerations in New York, DNA also helped identify the true perpetrators of the crimes – and in nine of those 10 cases, the actual perpetrators of crimes for which innocent people were convicted went on to commit additional crimes (five murders, seven rapes, two serious assaults, and one robbery at gunpoint) that could have been prevented if they were apprehended sooner. Read the full report here.
In a letter to legislators today, 55 family members of people who were exonerated in New York said they “feel a duty to speak out” in favor of legislation that can prevent other families from experiencing what they did.
“These reforms will not do much to help our family members who have already been exonerated. They will help other families, though. They will help families of crime victims, who do not see justice when the wrong person is convicted. They will protect public safety by helping apprehend actual criminals, instead of innocent people. These reforms will help families who might otherwise face what we did – and have their lives shattered by a wrongful conviction,” the letter from the family members says. Read the full letter from family members here.