CrimProf Blog

Editor: Kevin Cole
Univ. of San Diego School of Law

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Monday, December 1, 2008

Spare the innocent

Another innocent man has been freed. When will state legislators respond to what can only be called a crisis of wrongful conviction in New York? Perhaps in January, when Democrats take over the State Senate.

Albany has been woefully uninterested in this subject. New York has the nation’s third-highest number of people exonerated, but it has done little to keep the law from devouring more innocent suspects. The main obstacle has been the State Senate, where Republicans have shown virtually no interest in reforming the system.

It’s not as though this is a minor issue. Twenty-four New Yorkers have been exonerated through DNA testing, according to The Innocence Project, and 13 of thoses cases involved witness misidentification. That’s how Steven Barnes wound up in prison almost 20 years ago, convicted of a murder he did not commit.

Now 42, Barnes was convicted in 1989 of murdering acquaintance Kimberly Simon in Oneida County. The conviction was based largely on circumstantial evidence; witnesses testified they might have seen him with Simon or near the crime scene, according to the Utica Observer-Dispatch.

DNA testing, then in its infancy, was of no use. Further tests in the mid-1990s also were inconclusive, because of the continuing limits of the science.

But techniques have dramatically improved since then, and a new round of tests led to Barnes’ release from prison on Tuesday, two decades after he was wrongfully convicted.

It is not specifically the fault of state legislators that, at least 24 times in recent years, state criminal courts have convicted innocent people, including Anthony Capozzi and Lynn DeJac, both of Buffalo. But it is emphatically their fault that the state’s criminal justice system continues to operate in largely the same way as when it produced these wrongful convictions. [Mark Godsey]

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