Study on preventing wrongful convictions

An example: Change how lineups are done.

Posted: September 21, 2011

HARRISBURG - Pennsylvania policymakers could reduce the rate of wrongful convictions by changing how police and prosecutors handle confessions, interrogations, informants, and forensic evidence, according to a state legislative report issued Tuesday after four years of study.

The 328-page Joint State Government Commission report also endorsed changes to post-conviction proceedings and better legal representation for poor defendants.

"Due process does not require that every conceivable step at whatever cost be taken to eliminate the possibility of convicting an innocent person," it said. "Even so, the system cannot routinely accept the conviction of an innocent person without being challenged to consider measures to reduce the likelihood of error and grant redress to the victims of these errors."

The Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association said the suggested changes would create roadblocks to justice for victims and their families. The prosecutors' group also criticized the way the study was produced, saying it contained predetermined conclusions and had an agenda that favored criminal defendants.

The report said 11 convicted people had been partially or totally exonerated based on DNA in Pennsylvania. But state prosecutors said a closer look at those cases led them to conclude that only one of the 11 was clearly exonerated by the additional evidence, while true innocence was less clear in the others, and in some cases evidence of guilt remains.

The report suggested that lineups and photo arrays be run by an officer who does not know who the suspect is, that custodial interrogations be recorded, that people convicted of crimes be compensated by the state if they can prove actual innocence, and other changes.

Duquesne University law professor John Rago, chairman of the advisory committee that produced the report, said at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing where the report was released that the topic was "confounding" and difficult to contend with.

"Mistakes happen," he told senators. "The question becomes: How do we respond to our mistakes?"

Judiciary Committee Chairman Stewart Greenleaf (R., Montgomery) said the report was being forwarded to the Supreme Court for it to consider possible rule changes, and he planned to work on legislation where appropriate.

Crawford County District Attorney Francis Schultz, president of the state prosecutors' association, said imposing stricter rules for police and prosecutors would keep legitimate evidence out of court, handing defense attorneys new tools that could prevent guilty people from being convicted.

"We're all for training police officers better" on how they handle photo lineups, for example, Schultz said after the hearing. "We just don't think that it should be legislated."

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