Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Why is this controversial?

It is hard to believe that preventing the incarceration of innocent people is controversial. But that is the state of justice in Pennsylvania.

Today the advisory committee on wrongful convictions released its report. Committee chair Professor John Rago of Duquesne University School of Law and committee member Judge William Carpenter of Montgomery County presented the report to the Senate Judiciary Committee.

I have yet to read the report (it's available here), but Professor Rago and Judge Carpenter talked about some of their recommendations, including blind photo lineups, in which the officer presiding over a witness with a photo lineup does not know who the suspected perpetrator is, and audio and video recording of confessions.

This sounds like common sense. Who in their right mind would accept the incarceration of innocent people? Well, an independent response to the committee's report has been issued by prosecutors, police, and victims' advocates. I have not yet seen that report either, but a reporter tells me that the independent report claims that passing the committee's recommendations will give defense attorneys more room for shenanigans. (Update, 5:50pm: This Associated Press story further explains the position of those who oppose the study and its recommendations.)

Senator Stewart Greenleaf, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and the primary sponsor of the 2006 resolution that formed the advisory committee, pre-empted that argument in today's meeting, noting that recording confessions will make it more difficult for defense attorneys to challenge the legitimacy of confessions. He also said that implementing checks to stop wrongful convictions will give appeals attorneys less avenues and will keep guilty people from walking free on the streets.

Opponents of these recommendations need to explain why they fear accountability in the system and why they prefer a system that risks the incarceration of innocent people.

Looming over this, of course, is the imminent execution of Troy Davis in Georgia. No physical evidence links Davis to the murder of Savannah police officer Mark MacPhail in 1989. Seven of the nine witnesses against him have recanted, with some saying that they were coerced by police to identify Davis. Of the remaining two witnesses, one is a possible suspect in the killing.

This morning the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles denied Davis's request for clemency. Davis's execution is scheduled for tomorrow, and the governor has no clemency powers. The state of Georgia is willing to execute a man on no physical evidence and extremely flimsy witness testimony, at a time when the reliability of eyewitness testimony is increasingly called into question.

National ACLU has suggested action steps in response to the board's decision on its blog.

This problem is not isolated to Georgia. There are cases in Pennsylvania that are as weak as Davis's case and as questionable as the case of Cameron Todd Willingham in Texas.

The ACLU of Pennsylvania opposes the incarceration of innocent people. Apparently in Pennsylvania, that's a controversial statement.

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