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Editorial: We must remove avenues to wrongful convictions

Editorial: We must remove avenues to wrongful convictions

They not only deprive individuals of their liberty, but allow the real suspects to go free
Editorial: We must remove avenues to wrongful convictions
Larry McKee, 47, spent two decades in prison for a murder in the Bronx that he didn’t commit.
Photographer: Demetrius Freeman for The New York Times

“Music gave me some semblance of peace. I’d pull a blanket over my head. My fellow inmates might have thought I was scared. I was actually trying to escape the doom for a while, by blocking out the present, and thinking about exactly what I would be doing at home. Literally, I tried to live minute to minute in another place, rather than one second in this one. I spent most of those early days lying on my bunk with my headphones on, checked out. I thought that if I just resisted the environment, it might not feel so real. I didn’t want to talk or make friends. The food offered no distraction. I remained mostly a mystery to the men who weren’t immediately a cell door away from me. Who is this new guy? I heard them ask.” 

***

Anthony Graves was convicted in Texas in 1994 for killing a family of six. He spent 18-1/2 years in prison -- 16 of them in solitary confinement, including 12 on death row, where he was scheduled to receive a lethal injection twice.

The comments above are Anthony Graves’ recollections of his first night on death row. 

What would you be thinking on your first night of death row?

Could you even imagine it? The fear? The loneliness? The boredom? The filth? The physical and emotional pain?

The agony of not knowing whether you would ever see your spouse or your children or your parents or your friends ever again. That feeling in the pit of your stomach of not knowing whether you were going to live or die.

That’s just a watered-down glimpse of what people go through in prison.

Now imagine you were in that situation because you didn’t commit the crime.

Graves had no criminal record when he was arrested, and there was no physical evidence linking him to the crime.

In 2010, he was exonerated after the chief witness against him was found to be the real killer. The prosecutor in the case was disbarred for misconduct.

Larry McKee of New York City spent two decades in prison for shooting a man on a Bronx street in 1996.

The conviction was based largely on the testimony of a man who gave different accounts of what he saw (or didn’t see) that night.

According to an account in the National Registry of Exonerations, a judge prohibited the defense from interviewing the witness and the detective in the case about a police report from the night of the shooting. McKee was eventually convicted and sentenced to 24 years to life in prison.

In 2016, the new prosecutor in the Bronx re-investigated the case at the defense’s request and found other evidence that cleared McKee, including the testimony of another witness not previously disclosed. Larry McKee was 25 when he was arrested. In early 2018, at the age of 47, his conviction was set aside “in the interest of justice” and he was released from prison after serving 20 years.

These are real people, like you and me.

People who served lengthy prison time for crimes they didn’t commit.

In 2017, according to the National Registry of Exonerations, 139 individuals were exonerated of crimes they didn’t commit, including 51 people convicted of homicide. Since 1989, the registry reports, nearly 3,400 individuals convicted of crimes in this country have been found to be innocent and had their convictions set aside. The Innocence Project reports that the average time served for the wrongfully convicted was 13 years and that 70 percent of those exonerated were part of minority groups. The group estimates that between 2.3 percent and 5 percent of all prisoners are innocent.

The reasons for these wrongful convictions range from witnesses misidentifying suspects, to prosecutors and police who deliberately manufacture evidence or who withhold evidence that might clear suspects from the defense and courts, to witnesses who deliberately lie, to people who confess to crimes they didn’t commit. Yes, believe it or not, people under duress during police interrogations often confess to crimes for which they are innocent.

New York state has made progress in reducing wrongful convictions.

For instance, in April, Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed a law requiring law enforcement agencies to video record custodial interrogations in serious crimes, including homicides and violent felony sex offenses. The videotaping of interrogations will discourage police from using illegal tactics to elicit false confessions and will provide evidence to juries when a suspect claims to have had his confession coerced.

In 2017, the governor signed a law allowing photo arrays to be used as evidence at trial. Showing photos of potential suspects to witnesses close to the time a crime as been committed has been shown to be a reliable method of identification that could help cut down on people being wrongly identified in crimes.

In August, Cuomo signed a well-meaning but flawed law that would create a new state Commission on Prosecutorial Conduct to review and investigate prosecutorial conduct and address allegations of misconduct that lead to wrongful convictions. In a June editorial encouraging the governor to veto the law and demand changes, we said the state court system already had systems in place for investigating prosecutoral misconduct and providing relief to the wrongly convicted, that the law would face constitutional challenges over the separation of powers (which it has), and that the commission’s reports wouldn’t be released to the public.

The governor signed it anyway under the condition that its flaws be corrected. So at some time, we’re likely to see some kind of improvement in the fight against prosecutorial misconduct — either through changes to existing prosecutorial review or a modified independent commission — that could help reduce the instances of wrongful convictions.

And later this year, state lawmakers are expected to enact a new package of criminal justice reforms that could include ensuring that defense attorneys receive discovery evidence from prosecutors in a more timely manner, including information that might clear their clients, which some prosecutors have been known to withhold or delay. 
It’s in the public’s interest that the person who committed the crime goes to prison for it.

Wrongful convictions not only deprive wrongly accused individuals of their liberty, but also allow the real suspects to go free to continue to prey on innocent victims.

Legislation alone won’t cure all the ills or prevent every wrongfully charged suspect from being convicted. That will take a greater dedication by prosecutors, judges, defense attorneys, police and lawmakers to remove all possible avenues to a wrongful conviction. But it can be done. It should be done.

Let’s make 2019 the year when no more innocent people go to prison for crimes they didn’t commit.

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