PhD. Pamela Perez, Professor of biostatistics at Loma Linda University, conducted research for Safer-America.com in which she examined the 1,450 exonerations listed on the National Registry of Exonerations as of Oct. 20, 2014. She reported that although one cannot know for sure, the numbers collected so far show that “[B]lack Americans are exonerated at a substantially slower rate than any other race.” The collected data was then translated into an interactive map showing exoneration information through the United States breaking down exonerations by state, crime and race of the wrongfully convicted.
Pace Criminal Justice Blog has reported on the issue of wrongful convictions and exonerations, including, among others, the following posts:
As reported in the New York Times, two men were recently exonerated through proceedings in the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission based on DNA evidence that demonstrated the real criminal was another original suspect who had committed a similar crime. The two men each had served thirty years in prison, one on death row.
North Carolina of course is the only state in the United States with an independent commission established to examine the innocence claims of wrongly convicted individuals. England and Wales and Scotland have long had these commissions – the Criminal Cases Review Commissions. Although they obviously have critics, these commissions have functioned effectively – miraculously from a US perspective – in independently investigating (with subpoena power) and then referring cases to the court of appeal for review.
We should re-think our opposition to establishing independent commissions that can impartially and thoroughly investigate claims of wrongful conviction. Finality is an important value, yes, and we commit a tremendous amount of resources to the pre-conviction resolution of criminal charges. But it’s important to realize that the North Carolina courts and presumably the federal courts, did nothing to correct the manifestly erroneous convictions in this case. Were it not for the Commission, the convictions would stand. Can the correction of these so manifestly erroneous North Carolina convictions rationally be seen as threatening to our finality values?
Aside from the overriding importance of freeing the wrongly convicted, the public’s perception of the justice and reliability of our criminal process is deteriorating. One of the best and probably most cost-effective way to restore it is to establish direct review innocence commissions in our states.
Providing compensation for wrongfully convicted individuals has been an ongoing dilemma within the United States and for governments abroad. A recent blog, Compensating Exonerees: US v. UK, by Professor Lissa Griffin of Pace Law School discusses the UK’s current struggle to articulate a standard of proof for exonerees who are seeking compensation.
Two developments in New York State took place last week that may reveal a less strict approach to compensating exonerees. First, David Ranta, a man who was framed by Brooklyn detective Louis Scarcella and served 23 years in prison for a murder he did not commit reached an agreement with the office of the City Comptroller, Scott Stringer, to receive $6.4 million in compensation. Ranta’s $150 million claim was settled by the city comptroller, Scott Stringer, without a law suit ever being filed and thus without involving the City’s legal department. This was the first case to be disposed of by the new Conviction Integrity Unit in the Brooklyn District Attorney’s office, and that office joined in the application to vacate the conviction. While Stringer took some heat for this decision, he made clear that spending millions of dollars and many years in litigation would not do anyone justice in a case where the district attorney joined in the motion to vacate the conviction.
Second, New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman announced legislation that would allow people who have confessed or pleaded guilty to a crime they did not commit to sue the state for damages. This change seemingly would go hand in hand with the amendment to N.Y. CPL § 440 that allowed convicted defendants who had plead guilty to bring a post-conviction motion for DNA testing. As Schneiderman noted in his announcement, 10 of the 27 people in New York who have had their convictions vacated based on DNA had falsely confessed or pleaded guilty. Such people will be able to sue for compensation even if they cannot prove that their confession or guilty plea was coerced. The proposed bill would also extend the statute of limitations for wrongful conviction compensation claims from two to three years.
These developments make sense. NYC Comptroller Stringer’s decision to settle a claim without years of expensive litigation is a welcome breath of fresh air in our overly contentious adversary system and will allow the millions that would have been spent on defending the indefensible to be used to pay other wrongfully convicted individuals or for other important criminal justice purposes. Similarly, given what we now know about the causes of wrongful conviction, we should welcome the end of our pretending that false confessions do not exist.
If you are wrongly convicted and later exonerated in New Jersey, you may be able to obtain $20,000 for each year of your wrongful incarceration. New Jersey has a special statute designed to indemnify wrongly convicted individuals. So does New York, where there is no limit on the damages that can be awarded by the Court of Claims. But if you were wrongly convicted right next door in Pennsylvania, you are not likely to recover a cent. Unless you can fashion a lawsuit from the events leading to your conviction (and that’s often difficult), there is no statute to provide monetary assistance. All statutes should enact legislation to compensate the innocent and help them integrate into society.
We’ve compiled some links for those of you who are interested in reading more on this subject: