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Univ. of San Diego School of Law

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Friday, July 4, 2008

Changes Encouraged to Prevent False Confessions

There have been at least 56 wrongful convictions in New York State including those of Martin H. Tankleff and Jeffrey Mark Deskovic. Of those, at least 23 since 1991 have been based on DNA evidence — seven in the last eight years alone.

On Wednesday, the New York State Senate Democratic Task Force on Criminal Justice Reform held a forum

“I was one of the lucky ones,” said Mr. Tankleff, who testified at the forum before rushing off to his college class. “I was a white guy who lived in a nice area with a great family.”

Before his conviction for killing his parents was overturned in December 2007, he had written some 50,000 letters pleading his case in the 17 years he was in prison. “Over my time in prison I met many men who did not have the desire or drive that I did,” he said.

Among the proposals discussed at the forum, which was held at the Malcolm X and Dr. Betty Shabazz Memorial and Educational Center in Washington Heights, were:

  • Establish a commission to make recommendations for reforms, as other states have already done. The New York State Bar Association’s Task Force on Wrongful Convictions, for example, has looked at patterns in wrongful convictions. Among its findings: the average length of time before the conviction was overturned in the 56 cases was 11.2 years.
  • Preserve DNA evidence since the evidence is often lost, destroyed or impossible to locate. The Innocence Project, which works to exonerate the wrongfully convicted, said that a sample of closed cases from across the nation showed that one-third of them were closed because evidence could not be located for testing. The figure was even higher in New York, 50 percent.
  • Require written policies for administering eyewitness identification. Misidentification by witnesses contributed to 13 of the 23 New York DNA exoneration cases, according to the Innocence Project.
  • Reform the public defense system so that public defenders have the resources to uncover and challenge law enforcement’s methods in gathering evidence.
  • Require electronic recording of interrogations. False confessions or admissions were involved in 10 of the 23 wrongful conviction cases, according to the Innocence Project.

As an example of how the police can coax false confessions, the commission made available a videotape of Frank Esposito, who as a 17-year-old was arrested and charged with arson in a fire at Bergen Beach Stables, which killed 21 horses in 2000.

He was later acquitted in a jury trial when the defense showed cellphone records that indicated he was nowhere near the stable at the time of the fire. [Mark Godsey]

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