State to Create Bureau to Review Potential Wrongful Convictions
Wednesday, April 11, 2012 - 11:39 AM
The New York Attorney announced Wednesday that he is establishing a bureau to review potential wrongful convictions and streamline damage claims from those punished for crimes they didn't commit.
The Conviction Review Bureau will work with district attorneys to identify cases in anticipation of possible lawsuits, efficiently resolve claims by those unjustly convicted, review its own investigative and prosecutorial practices to ensure reliability and establish best practices, according to Eric Schneiderman's office.
"There is only one person who wins when the wrong person is convicted of a crime: the real perpetrator, who remains free to commit more crimes," Schneiderman said. It is imperative "to maximize accuracy, justice, and reliability in our justice system," and his office will work with county prosecutors "to address compelling claims of innocence," he said.
The bureau will be led by Thomas Schellhammer, assistant attorney general and former Manhattan homicide prosecutor, and Blake Zeff, senior adviser to Schneiderman. Schellhammer will be chief of the bureau and Zeff will be director.
While noting county prosecutors have successfully reinvestigated convictions, like the Central Park jogger case in Manhattan, Schneiderman said there may be others where an outside review helps. In the jogger case, teenagers who initially confessed in police interrogations to the 1989 rape and severe beating of a woman were later exonerated after DNA evidence and a confession implicated someone else.
Warren County District Attorney Kate Hogan said prosecutors "have always appreciated the seriousness of post-conviction review," though prosecutors in 40 of the state's 62 counties have 10 or fewer attorneys to handle their entire caseload. She welcomed Schneiderman's help in providing experienced attorneys who will work collaboratively with them to review cases.
Defense attorney Barry Scheck, co-director of the Innocence Project that has used DNA evidence to overturn several convictions, said he hoped prosecutors will take advantage of the program.
In March, the Legislature approved and Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed a measure to require collecting a saliva swab of DNA from everyone convicted of any felony and all but one misdemeanor statewide starting in August. That will approximately double collections for New York's database of offenders' genetic material, which is compared against crime scene DNA.
According to New York officials, the database has helped identify suspects in 12,000 cases, obtain more than 2,800 convictions and exonerate 27 people wrongly convicted. The new law expands defense access to the databank in efforts to exonerate suspects through pretrial discovery and post-conviction applications to judges.
Proposals to require police videotaping of interrogations and "double-blind" photo arrays for witnesses, meant to prevent false confessions and identification errors, were left out of the final bill.
Conviction errors have been expensive. Jeffrey Deskovic won $6.5 million after spending 16 years in prison following his wrongful conviction of a murder in Westchester County. He was released in 2006 after DNA linked the 1989 killing to another man.