New York Plans Permanent Task Force on Wrongful Convictions

The Chief Judge of New York’s Court of Appeals, Hon. Jonathan Lippman, said on Law Day, May 1, 2009, that he would create a Justice Task Force to examine the causes of wrongful convictions and develop systemic remedies to minimize them and to make the states criminal justice system more effective. Importantly, the task force is permanent. Members of the task force are being selected by Judge Lippman and will include prosecutors, defense lawyers, scientists and lawmakers. They will have a broad mandate to examine police procedures, court rules and other issues involved in wrongful convictions.

The task force will develop improvements in court procedures and rules, legislation, and training for attorneys, judges and police. New York’s task force will not be limited to capital cases, nor will it confine itself to a single set of recommendations. The task force will collect data about wrongful convictions on a continuing basis and monitor the effectiveness of any policy changes.

Judge Lippman’s version, many experts believe, will be the most robust in the country. The new task force will examine only cases in which the judicial system has already made exonerations. Moreover, by including defense lawyers, prosecutors and members of the bench among its membership, the task force will in effect be looking over the shoulders of its own constituents.

Nationwide, 237 people have been exonerated with DNA testing, according to the Innocence Project. Twenty-four of them are in New York State. Only Texas and Illinois have seen more DNA exonerations. The Innocence Project reports that New York has been a leader on forensic DNA for decades. It was the first state to pass a law granting DNA testing to prisoners with claims of innocence; the first state to create a forensic science commission to ensure quality forensic evidence; and among the first states to exonerate innocent prisoners using DNA testing.

Last year the New York State Bar Association also announced the formation of a task force to study wrongful convictions in New York. Judge Lippman’s task force largely mirrors the one envisioned in legislation sponsored by Michael N. Gianaris, a Queens assemblyman, but never approved by the full Legislature. One difference is that Judge Lippman’s task force would not itself have subpoena powers, although Judge Lippman, as chief judge, could issue subpoenas on its behalf. Mr. Gianaris said that he would seek to work with Judge Lippman on legislation to expand the task forces legal powers.

The major causes of wrongful convictions are mistaken eyewitness identification, false confessions and false informant testimony. But concern has grown over the role played by crime laboratories, which test evidence gathered by crime scene investigators. The vast majority of the nation’s 359 accredited crime laboratories are located within police agencies. Crime laboratories are now in the reform spotlight for several reasons, including the popularity of television police dramas like CSI: Miami.

This year the National Academy of Science will publish Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States: A Path Forward suggests the creation of a new government entity, the National Institute of Forensic Science, to establish and enforce standards within the forensic science community. This need is seen for change and advancements, both systematic and scientific, in a number of forensic science disciplines to ensure the reliability of work, establish enforceable standards, and promote best practices with consistent application.

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