NY Assembly Reforms on DNA and Criminal Justice Will Address and Prevent Wrongful Convictions, Innocence Project Says
Innocence Project and New Yorkers exonerated by DNA testify that Assembly reform package includes key measures missing in Senate proposal
(ALBANY, NY; May 31, 2007) – Legislation in the New York State Assembly would bring “serious, meaningful and badly needed” reforms to prevent and address wrongful convictions statewide, the Innocence Project said today. At a hearing today in Albany on the Assembly legislation, Innocence Project Co-Director Peter Neufeld and three New Yorkers who have been exonerated through DNA in the last year told legislators that the Assembly reforms address these critical issues far more substantially and meaningfully than proposals that passed in the state Senate last week.
“Any time lawmakers are weighing bills on DNA and the criminal justice system, the bottom-line question is whether the reforms can prevent wrongful convictions, help people prove their innocence more quickly, and improve public safety. Legislation introduced in the Assembly meets that test far better than the Senate proposal does,” Neufeld said. “These are serious problems that demand serious action, and New York’s criminal justice system will be best served by the Assembly reforms.”
Across New York State, 23 people have been proven innocent through DNA testing; only Texas and Illinois have seen more wrongful convictions overturned through DNA, according to the Innocence Project, which is affiliated with Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University. Nine of the 23 New York exonerations took place in just the last 16 months – including the cases of Alan Newton, Roy Brown and Doug Warney, who all testified in Albany today in support of the Assembly reforms.
The key provisions in the Assembly reforms – and the critical shortcomings in the proposal passed by the Senate – include:
Preservation and cataloguing of evidence
Evidence that can be subjected to DNA testing to prove innocence or solve “cold” cases is often lost in New York State. The Assembly reforms would help establish statewide rules and standards for preserving and storing evidence, while the Senate proposal would only create “voluntary guidelines.”
Limits on post-conviction review
The Senate proposal puts a one-year time limit on most claims of post-conviction relief, even though it often takes many years after a conviction to identify and present the evidence necessary to establish innocence. The Assembly reforms do not seek similar restrictions.
Use of forensic databases to prove innocence
The Assembly and Senate proposals both allow for crime scene evidence to be run through DNA databases to identify suspects. The Assembly reforms extend this important crime-solving mechanism to include comparisons of fingerprints; the Senate proposal does not.
Independent commission to improve the criminal justice system
The Assembly reforms would create an independent Innocence Commission, comprised of key stakeholders from across the criminal justice system, to determine the causes of wrongful convictions and develop remedies to prevent them; the Senate proposal would simply create an office within the Department of Criminal Justice Services, which would exclude critical perspectives from throughout the system and would not be independent.
Statute of limitations in DNA cases
The Assembly reforms codify “John Doe” indictments (preserving the ability to prosecute where probative DNA evidence exists but does not yet match anyone), while the Senate proposal simply extends the statute of limitations in all DNA cases, which increases the risk of wrongful convictions.
Electronic recording of interrogations
The Assembly reforms require that confessions be accompanied by recordings of the interrogations that accompanied them; the Senate proposal does not address this issue (even though 25% of wrongful convictions overturned by DNA involved false confessions).
"There are important differences between the Assembly reforms and the proposal that passed in the Senate. The difference is whether we will truly learn the lessons of DNA exonerations and take steps to seriously improve our state’s criminal justice system,” Neufeld said. The Innocence Project noted that several Senate Democrats support the Assembly reforms. “When you line these bills up side by side, the only reasonable conclusion is that the Assembly reforms will best protect the innocent while enhancing law enforcement capability statewide."
The three New Yorkers exonerated through DNA testing in the last year who testified today are:
- Alan Newton of New York City, exonerated by DNA last summer after serving 21 years in prison for a rape he did not commit;
- Douglas Warney of Rochester, exonerated through DNA in May 2006 after spending 9 years in prison for a murder he did not commit; and
- Roy Brown of Cayuga County, exonerated by DNA earlier this year after serving 15 years in prison for a murder he did not commit.
"Each of these men’s wrongful convictions could have been avoided – or they could have proven their innocence much sooner – if the Assembly reforms had been in place," Neufeld said.
Facts on DNA Exonerations in New York State
- 23 of the nation’s 201 DNA exonerations (more than 10%) have been in New York State.
- The first DNA exoneration in New York was in 1991. In 2006, there were four DNA exonerations in New York. There have been two so far in 2007.
- The 23 DNA exonerations in New York have been from across the state – including Buffalo, Rochester, Cayuga County, Long Island, Westchester County and New York City.
- In 10 of New York’s 23 DNA exoneration cases, the actual perpetrator was later identified.
- Before they were exonerated, these 23 individuals served an average of 11 years in prison for crimes they did not commit.
- These 23 New Yorkers served a combined total of 239 years in prison.
- In 13 of the 23 New York cases, eyewitness misidentification was a contributing factor in the wrongful conviction.
- In 10 of the 23 New York DNA exoneration cases, a false confession was obtained by law enforcement.
- The Innocence Project recently conducted a preliminary analysis of its closed cases and found that while nationally 30% of cases were closed because evidence was lost or destroyed (and thus could not be subjected to DNA testing in order to prove guilt or innocence), in New York City 50% of cases were closed for this reason.
- Click here to read more about the 23 New York exonerees.