Innocence Agenda Needed in Louisiana
Criminal Defense Lawyers Propose Critical Reforms
New Orleans, LA (February 25, 2000) -- The likely conviction of the innocent which results in prison and even deaths sentences in Louisiana and across the country may be eased and prevented by implementing new reforms including DNA testing legislation, the nation’s preeminent criminal defense bar said today.
According to the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL), a dangerously broken criminal justice system continues to rob the innocent of their liberty and their lives. Each year, at least four innocent people are convicted of capital crimes they did not commit. And since 1973, 85 people have been released from death row because they were wrongfully convicted. This year in Louisiana, DNA testing freed Clyde Charles from the notorious Angola prison, where he spent 19 years for a crime that he did not commit.
“Our legal system is plagued by botched forensic science, careless and reckless work by police and prosecutors, and witnesses who don’t tell the truth,” said NACDL President William B. Moffitt at a press conference during NACDL’s midwinter meeting in New Orleans. “Far too often, the innocent are the victims of these disastrous bungles. If we want a criminal justice system that is truly just, we must fix what is broken in Louisiana and throughout the rest of the country.”
Louisiana State Representatives Arthur Miller, Kyle Green, Reggie Dupres and Leonard Lucas joined Moffitt at the press conference and added their support to a series of administrative and legislative reforms introduced by Moffitt and noted DNA expert Barry Scheck. The reforms are aimed at preventing wrongful convictions. Scheck, who is NACDL Secretary, is the author with Pulitzer-Prize-winning columnist Jim Dwyer and with NACDL member Peter Neufeld, of Actual Innocence, a new book that details the convictions of eight innocent people and how they ultimately were exonerated. The reforms proposed by NACDL -- and enumerated in Actual Innocence -- include:
Allowing postconviction DNA testing where there is a reasonable probability that an inmate is innocent; changes in eyewitness identification procedures to guard against mistakes;
Videotaping all interrogations so there is an objective record;
Establishing new procedures to govern the use and reliability of informant, or ‘snitch’ testimony;
Establishing crime laboratories independent from police departments and insuring that these labs are regularly and rigorously evaluated and subject to oversight;
Creating specialized committees to deal exclusively with misconduct by prosecutors and police officers;
Ensuring high-quality defense lawyers for the poor by raising pay levels for public defenders and enforcing high-level performance standards in each jurisdiction;
Enacting no-fault compensation statutes to provide relief to those who prove they were wrongfully convicted and
Creating and funding Innocence Projects at law schools for teaching and research on wrongful convictions, causes and remedies.
NACDL’s call for reform comes only weeks after Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) introduced the “Innocence Protection Act,” which offers long overdue changes that will pave the way for the vindication of some who have been wrongfully convicted and improve the quality of counsel for indigent defendants who make up the overwhelming majority of individuals facing the death penalty.
Senator Leahy’s bill, which NACDL supports, would ensure that individuals who were wrongfully convicted of any crime have access to the DNA evidence that may exonerate them and to the courts so that their claims can be heard. The proposed legislation also would require that biological evidence be preserved for a period of time sufficient to allow prisoners to request a DNA to be considered by a court. DNA testing facilities will also be subject to proficiency testing to prevent flawed or rigged results.
“Senator Leahy’s reforms and the reforms proposed by NACDL will make marked progress in ensuring that the cries of the innocent behind bars will be heeded,” Moffitt said.
Added Scheck: “We as a nation have a choice: we can continue to imprison and kill the innocent in this country or we can strive to fix what is provably broken in our criminal justice system. If we cannot protect the innocent from wrongful prosecution and conviction, then we cannot claim that the American system of justice is truly just.”