a bird and a bottle

Bring on the Innocence Commissions!
January 29, 2007, 5:09 pm
Filed under: criminal justice

The NY Times has a great editorial today calling for increased use of innocence commissions.  Innocence commissions are groups of criminal justice professionals who review cases in which the person who was convicted (often a very long time ago) is exonerated by DNA Evidence.  Often, these people were convicted based on eyewitness testimony, which has been proven time and again to be unreliable. Sometimes, as in the case of Allen Newton who was exonerated this past summer, it takes over 10 years for the DNA evidence to be located and tested. In one of the cases highlighted in the Editorial, a Texas man had to fight for 18 years to get DNA testing.

The innocence comissions are a positive first step. And their policy recommendations may ultimately have a great impact. But for now the commissions seem to be mostly retrospective. We need immediate change — laws guaranteeing DNA testing, statutes granting compensation for those wrongly convicted (who do not even benefit from the paltry support services offered to parolees and who often have a difficult time rebuilding their lives), and jury instructions that include the statistics for how often eyewitness identifications are wrong.

Because as the Times points out, who knows how many men and women are serving life sentences or – even worse – the death penalty for offenses they could easily be shown not to have committed? My guess is that it’s a much larger number than most would think.

For more stories of exonerees, check out the film After Innocence.


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