Lessons Not Learned: New York Leads in the Number of Wrongful Convictions but Lags in Reforms That Can Prevent Them
Throughout New York State, 24 people have been exonerated through DNA testing after being convicted of crimes they did not commit. Each one was arrested, jailed, convicted and served years in prison before the hard science of DNA proved innocence. Combined, they served 280 years in prison. Only two other states in the nation, Texas and Illinois, have seen more convictions overturned by DNA evidence.
Among these 24 New Yorkers whose lives were shattered by wrongful convictions, eight since 2000 were wrongfully convicted of murder – more than in any other state in the nation in the same period of time. Seven of those eight men could have received the death penalty if it were an option at the time of their convictions or if prosecutors had sought it and one of them was charged with a capital crime but escaped the death penalty.
The DNA exonerations in New York reveal serious problems in the state’s criminal justice system – problems that profoundly impact individuals’ lives and entire communities, and demand serious solutions. Common-sense remedies that are proven to decrease the potential for wrongful convictions have been introduced in the New York Legislature in various forms over the last several years. Comprehensive packages of reforms have been introduced in the Legislature repeatedly, but they have not passed.
Every exoneration is a learning moment that can deepen our understanding of the criminal justice system’s shortcomings and provide a roadmap for restoring integrity and confidence in the system. Collectively, DNA exonerations are irrefutable evidence ofthe system’s flaws – and they are a mandate for reform. The lessons of the DNA exonerations in New York State can be drawn from the simple facts behind them:
• The 24 DNA exonerations in New York since 1991 represent more than 10% of all DNA exonerations nationwide.
• In the last nine years, there has been a particularly high number of DNA exonerations in New York State. Since 2000, 18 wrongfully convicted people in New York have been exonerated with DNA evidence; eight of the 18 were wrongfully convicted of murder.
• In 10 of New York’s 24 DNA exonerations, the actual perpetrator was later identified.
• In nine of those 10 cases, the actual perpetrators of crimes for which innocent people were wrongfully convicted went on to commit additional crimes while an innocent person was in prison.
• According to law enforcement reports, five murders, seven rapes, two assaults and one robbery were committed by the actual perpetrators of crimes for which innocent people were committed – and each of those crimes was committed after the wrongful arrest or conviction, so they could have been prevented if wrongful convictions had not happened.
• Eyewitness misidentification played a role in 13 of the 24 wrongful convictions in New York that were overturned with DNA testing.
• In 10 of the 24 cases in New York, innocent people falsely confessed or admitted to crimes that DNA later proved they did not commit.
• Unvalidated or improper forensic science played a role in 13 of the 24 wrongful convictions in New York that were overturned through DNA evidence.
Despite the large number of DNA exonerations – particularly since 2000 – New York has not learned the lessons of these exonerations and taken action to prevent future injustice. Many other states in the nation have enacted strong reforms that are proven to enhance the accuracy and fairness of the criminal justice system. These reforms are essential since DNA is only available in a tiny fraction of cases.
• 7 states – but not New York – have taken legislative action to improve eyewitness identification procedures.
• 41 states – but not New York – have laws granting post-conviction DNA testing regardless of whether the defendant pled guilty (some people have pled guilty to crimes that DNA later proved they did not commit).
• 26 states – but not New York – have statutes mandating the preservation of crime scene evidence.
• 14 states – but not New York – require at least some interrogations to be recorded (either through state statute or ruling of the state high court). In addition, more than 500 local jurisdictions record at least some interrogations.
Even though more people have been exonerated by DNA after falsely confessing to crimes in New York than in any other state, only 17 (11 police departments, 3 state police agencies and 3 county sheriff’s offices) of these 500 local jurisdictions are in New York State.
From across the political spectrum, leaders in dozens of states have begun to meaningfully address wrongful convictions and enhance the criminal justice system. But New York has not.
Leadership in New York State’s executive, legislative and judicial branches must act promptly to enact reforms that can restore public confidence in the state’s criminal justice system and improve public safety. The Innocence Project’s review of these DNA exonerations clearly shows that in order to advance justice and safety, New York State must:
• Improve eyewitness identification procedures, including how lineups and photo arrays are conducted.
• Remove barriers to DNA testing that can prove innocence, such as the standard judges use to grant DNA testing and the ability of people who pled guilty to get DNA testing.
• Make it easier to use DNA and fingerprint databases o identify real perpetrators of crime and exonerate innocent people.
• Provide better access to evidence that can prove innocence by giving judges the authority to order a thorough search and inventory of evidence.
• Establish a task force to develop statewide systems for preserving evidence that can solve cold cases and exonerate innocent prisoners.
• Ensure quality forensic science statewide by expanding the scope of the New York Forensic Science Commission to cover all forensic assays that can be used as evidence.
• Provide adequate compensation to the wrongfully convicted, including those who falsely confessed to crimes (and currently are denied compensation), and ensure that compensation and services are available to people immediately upon release.
• Record interrogations in felony cases in their entirety whenever possible.
This report details the wrongful convictions in New York that have been overturned through DNA evidence. It provides background on each case – and the unimaginable toll each wrongful conviction had on ordinary New Yorkers and their families, the disservice these cases brought to victims of crime who were let down by a flawed system, and the tragic consequences these wrongful convictions had on communities from Buffalo to the Bronx. This report examines the causes of wrongful convictions in New York and nationwide – and explains how the system can be fixed with sensible, straightforward reforms by the executive, legislative and judicial branches in New York State.