Sunday, September 9, 2007

Laws Would Help Keep Innocent Out Of Prison

Laws would help keep innocent out of prison
By Gloria Romero, Elaine Alquist and Mark Ridley-Thomas Article Launched: 09/07/2007 01:34:05 AM PDT

It's hard to imagine why someone would confess to a double murder he didn't commit. It's hard to imagine, that is, until you hear Harold Hall describe the 17 hours of intense interrogation he endured when he was 18 years old. The only way out was to tell his interrogators what they wanted to hear.

Prosecutors bolstered his false confession with false testimony by a jailhouse informant. The jury convicted him and prosecutors asked for the death penalty. Hall told the jury that he was an innocent man. They spared him from the death penalty, but sentenced him to life without parole.

Hall lost 19 years of his life before he was finally granted a new trial and the charges dismissed. This past January, Timothy Atkins was serving a life sentence for second-degree murder and robbery. In February, he walked into the arms of his family and stood on the steps of the court house with his lawyers from the California Innocence Project, a free man for the first time in 20 years. Atkins was wrongfully convicted based on mistaken eyewitness identification and the testimony of an informant who had been told by Los Angeles police, "You're not going to leave until you tell us something."

This summer, The Innocence Project in New York marked the 200th case in which DNA evidence freed an innocent person.

Most wrongful convictions result from coerced confessions, false testimony by jailhouse informants or mistaken eyewitness identifications.

Wrongful convictions lead to three significant injustices: an innocent person is incarcerated; criminal investigations end, leaving the real perpetrator free to commit more crimes; and victims' families suffer.

In addition, police or the state may be sued for wrongful incarceration leading to large financial settlements. To prevent all of these injustices, we have introduced a trio of bills to help end wrongful convictions, as recommended by the California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice. Chaired by former Attorney General John Van de Kamp, the commission includes representatives of law enforcement, prosecutors, defense attorneys and victims' advocates and has recommended these legislative reforms.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed two similar bills last year. Although he praised the concept of the bills, the governor cited "drafting errors" in his vetoes. Those "errors" have since been corrected.

This week, the Legislature passed all three bills and sent them to Schwarzenegger.

In the interest of justice, we urge him to sign all three bills this month. Electronic recording of custodial interrogations would help end coerced confessions and protect both defendants and the police

SB511 (Alquist) would mandate recording of the entire interrogation,including the Miranda warning. Several other states already require recording of the full interrogation, including Iowa, New Mexico and Wisconsin. Prosecutors and law enforcement officers praise the practice in every state where it is now required.

Misidentification of perpetrators by eyewitnesses causes the most wrongful convictions.

SB 756 (Ridley-Thomas) would require the attorney general to develop voluntary guidelines for conducting lineups based on documented best practices.

The third proposed law would curb false testimony by jailhouse informants by requiring corroborating evidence for all such testimony. Jailhouse informants have strong reasons to lie because they are offered leniency in return for information.

SB 609 (Romero) would not affect a large number of cases in California, but it would provide important protections, particularly in death penalty cases. Working to free innocent people wrongly imprisoned is a long process, often taken up by volunteer attorneys and law students who can serve only a small fraction of those who need assistance. This trio of bills would curb the most common causes of wrongful convictions and protect defendants, police, victims and the state.

GLORIA ROMERO is the state Senate majority leader and represents part of Los Angeles.

ELAINE ALQUIST is a state senator representing San Jose.

MARK RIDLEY- THOMAS is a state senator representing part of Los Angeles. All Democrats, they wrote this article for the Mercury News .

Book Recommendation, "Journey Toward Justice", author Dennis Fritz.
Dennis Fritz is the other innocent man in John Grisham's book, "The Innocent Man".

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