A lot of people have little sympathy for prisoners, as evidenced by the reaction to our editorial last week supporting Gov. Cuomo’s proposal to provide then with free college tuition. But what about those who were wrongly convicted? Surely they deserve some sympathy — and compensation for their loss of liberty. That’s what Attorney General Eric Schneiderman thinks, and wants to accomplish by changing the law to make it easier to sue the state for wrongful conviction.
This is not a new issue for Schneiderman. His interest goes back at least to his years as a state senator (he was elected attorney general in 2010), when he held legislative hearings on wrongful convictions and introduced anti-wrongful conviction legislation. It was sparked by his opposition to the death penalty, based in part on the potential for wrongful convictions, which was then being demonstrated by DNA testing that showed 21 prisoners around the country, some of whom had previously pleaded guilty, were in fact innocent. Schneiderman also pointed out that wrongful convictions not only lock up an innocent person, they allow the person who really committed the crime to remain free to commit another one.
Currently, the wrongfully convicted can sue only if they didn’t cause or bring about the conviction with their own conduct, such as a false confession.
But that is too broad a limitation. Innocent people may confess for a variety of reasons, including police coercion (as a senator, Schneiderman was the main sponsor of a bill requiring videotaped interrogations), as part of a plea bargain, or because of limited comprehension due to a mental condition or age. A confession shouldn’t be the end of things for police and prosecutors. They must look further for evidence. Their job isn’t just to get a conviction, but to do justice, to get it right.
Schneiderman feels even more strongly about the issue now that, as attorney general, he is required to defend the state against these lawsuits.
By allowing the wrongly convicted to sue even if they confessed, Schneiderman would make it more likely that law enforcement officials get it right, which is in the interest not only of justice but public safety. The Legislature should revise the law in the way he has suggested.