In recent years, as they have become increasingly aware of the frequency and various causes of wrongful convictions, prosecutors in a number of large cities and counties across the country created conviction integrity units. These units re-examine the evidence in cases in which there's good reason to believe a wrongful conviction occurred because of mistakes in the initial investigation, eyewitness misidentifications, perjury of witnesses and/or official misconduct.
Rather than continuing to rely exclusively on a process that is overloaded with frivolous petitions and drags out appeals for decades, Connecticut should follow the lead of those cities and counties and create a statewide conviction integrity unit.
Since 2007, such units have been created in more than a dozen cities and counties — first in Dallas, then in Chicago and Cook County, San Jose and Santa Clara County, Manhattan and Brooklyn in New York, Detroit and Wayne County, Denver and, most recently, Philadelphia and Cleveland. In most of the cases reviewed, the convictions have remained in place. Nevertheless, the re-examinations have resulted in the dismissal of 33 convictions in Dallas, four in Manhattan and seven in Brooklyn.
There are instances in which the evidence of actual innocence — most notably, DNA evidence — surfaces after a conviction that is so conclusive that prosecutors will ask a court to throw out a conviction. The New York-based Innocence Project reports that, since 1989, 316 wrongful convictions have been thrown out because of DNA evidence that conclusively tied someone other than the person convicted to the crime. In Connecticut, three such exonerations have occurred over the past eight years.
But it is important to realize that the absence of conclusive DNA evidence of actual innocence does not constitute proof that an individual was rightfully convicted of the crime for which he or she is incarcerated. There are cases in which, although it doesn't constitute proof of actual innocence, there is DNA evidence that points to someone else as the perpetrator. And there are, of course, many cases in which there is no DNA evidence.
Statistics on how many people have been convicted of a serious felony in the U.S. over the 25 years since 1989 are hard to find, let alone how many of those were wrongfully convicted. But given that more than 2 million people are now incarcerated, surely the number of wrongful convictions over the past 25 years far exceeds the 316 for which there was an exoneration on the basis of DNA evidence.
Even among the known wrongful convictions, the exonerations resulting from DNA evidence represent only a small portion of all wrongful convictions and exonerations. The National Registry of Exonerations, a cooperative project of the University of Michigan Law School and the Center on Wrongful Convictions at the Northwestern University School of Law, reports there have been 1,385 exonerations, meaning that DNA-based exonerations constitute less than one-quarter of all exonerations.
Unfortunately, for those convicted of a serious felony for which there is no conclusive DNA evidence of innocence, there is no proactive state effort to consider whether a wrongful conviction occurred. There is only the drawn-out habeas process with its years, even decades, of appeals, a process in which the scales of justice seem to be tipped heavily in favor of the state and in which prosecutors seem to be concerned only with defending the original conviction.
In recent years, Connecticut enacted important legislation designed to prevent wrongful convictions. It has required that confessions to serious crimes be videotaped to prevent false confessions. And in 2012, it mandated the blind or double-blind administration and sequential presentation of a suspect and fillers in a lineup or photo array in order to minimize eyewitness misidentifications — the single most frequent cause, by far, of wrongful convictions.
The state now leads the country in preventing wrongful convictions. There is no reason it should not also lead the country in correcting any wrongful convictions that occurred in the past. One way to do that is to create a statewide conviction integrity unit in the office of the chief state's attorney.
David R. Cameron is a professor of political science at Yale and a member of the state's Eyewitness Identification Task Force.