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Univ. of San Diego School of Law

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Tuesday, May 27, 2008

They didn't do it: Convicting the innocent

396bn20080525h002toomanypeoplewr264 At least 23 New Yorkers have been jailed for serious crimes they didn’t commit. Here’s how we can stop that from happening.  “You don’t have to be involved in anything wrong to have this happen to you. I had never been arrested for so much as a violation. … If it happened to me, it can happen to any of you. It can happen to your son or daughter. It can happen to your best friend, or it can happen to your spouse.”

In New York, that foundation is under severe strain. The state has one of the nation’s most troubling records on wrongful convictions and is also among the worst at responding to it. With at least 23 people cleared through use of post-conviction DNA testing, New York has the third-highest number of people exonerated, but it has done little to keep the law from ensnaring more innocent residents.

That number should be kept in perspective. There are nearly 63,000 state prison inmates and 30,000 local-jail prisoners in New York State, put there by hard-working police and court personnel and often by careful jurors, and the vast majority of those prisoners deserves to be behind bars. But each wrongful conviction is a failure of the justice system, and the price paid by innocent people is severe.

Clark knows about wrongful convictions. In the space of one year, he was confronted with facts that upended convictions the DA’s office had won in two shocking, high-profile cases. Anthony Capozzi, convicted of rapes he did not commit, and Lynn DeJac, pronounced guilty of murdering the daughter she did not kill, served a combined 35 years in prison before authorities caught up to the truth.

In each case, the chasm separating wrongful conviction from eventual exoneration was bridged by the microscopic markers known as deoxyribonucleic acid: DNA. In Capozzi’s case, another man’s DNA proved beyond dispute that Capozzi was not the Delaware Park Rapist. It was his bad luck that, in 1985, before DNA testing was possible, he bore some resemblance to Altemio Sanchez, a sociopath who would soon metamorphose from rapist to serial killer. [Mark Godsey]

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