Peace & Justice

This is the blog of the Commission on Peace and Justice for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Albany, New York.

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Reducing wrongful convictions

Kevin Doyle, a lawyer who has defended capital cases in Alabama and New York, reviewed two important books for America magazine; one dealt with the convictions of innocent people, while the other was about the death penalty in America. The entire review is here, but we bring to your attention some recommendations to reduce the number of people wrongly convicted. The review explains why these are necessary.
• Police identification procedures should conform to written protocols, and each procedure should be documented contemporaneously. Ideally, officers unfamiliar with the specific investigation should conduct the procedures to prevent influencing witnesses with even unintended clues and cues. Judges should emphatically instruct jurors not to evaluate an identifying witness solely by the person’s certainty and not to imagine that the memory works like a camera.

• Forensic labs should stand independent of law enforcement and submit to external oversight in the form of periodic blind audits. “All examiners should be blind-tested for proficiency. The defense should have access to underlying bench notes and laboratory reports, and to their own defense experts.” Courts should stand guard against junk science.

• Before allowing a jailhouse informant to testify, a trial court should render a threshold judgment of minimal reliability. All police or prosecutor conversations with informants should be recorded; this will ensure full disclosure of deals struck and deter informants’ ascribing to defendants details learned from the police.

• Interrogations should be recorded, as 11 states and the District of Columbia currently require or encourage. Trial courts should scrutinize resultant recordings for hints of coercion or of the police’s feeding a suspect crime details the suspect then weaves into his confession. Minors and the mentally compromised should enjoy special safeguards.