Report Would Create Roadblocks to Justice

September 20, 2011

HARRISBURG, PA -Law enforcement and crime victim representatives serving on a legislative commission studying so-called “wrongful convictions” expressed today strong opposition to a final report saying it failed to properly conduct an independent study, contains predetermined conclusions and makes recommendations never considered or voted on by the committee.

“No one wants reliable convictions more than law enforcement and the victims’ rights community¸ but no one should mistake this report as an independent, balanced attempt to make convictions more accurate,” said Pennsylvania District Attorney President and District Attorney of Crawford County Francis Schultz. “This report was clearly written for the purposes of public relations, but we are deeply concerned that its recommendations have the potential to create roadblocks to justice.”

Fourteen members of the committee joined together in a formal response to address lapses in the principal report’s assumptions and conclusions. Concerned that many of the proposals outlined in the report would effectively keep reliable evidence out of courts, the group also offered a series of recommendations that they urged the committee to consider but were not included in the committee’s principal report.

“I am deeply concerned that the recommendations of this report will create miscarriages of justice for victims by creating more wrongful acquittals of the guilty,” said Pennsylvania Victim Advocate Carol Lavery. “In fact, these proposals will make the conviction of all defendants more difficult, which would primarily benefit the guilty and deny justice to victims.”

In March of 2007, a Joint State Government Advisory Committee convened at the direction of a Senate resolution to study so-called “wrongful convictions.” That independent analysis never happened. Instead, the committee, which was comprised of predominately academics and criminal defense attorneys, accepted at face value claims of “wrongful convictions,” adopted a definition of “actual innocence” that is not the equivalent of “factual innocence,” and failed to acknowledge controversy or opposition within the committee. The committee has not formally convened in several years and no votes were taken to gauge the members’ support for its final proposals.

“Unfortunately, this advisory committee and its final report takes the position that we should trust academics and the defense attorneys before we trust citizen juries,” said John A. Fiorill, legislative representative for the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP). “It is telling that the report doesn’t even acknowledge that statistically speaking, law enforcement is already earning an A-plus.”

Since 1970, there have been 5.1 million convictions in Pennsylvania, but the committee, even using its own misleading definition of wrongful conviction could only identify eight to eleven cases of the alleged “wrongful convictions.” Only one case involves a verifiable claim of “actual innocence” as that term is commonly and properly understood. In fact, the report includes the guilty in its definition of “innocent” and even recommends paying out potentially millions of dollars in compensation to offenders whose convictions are overturned on procedural technicalities rather than actual, factual innocence.

Schultz said that law enforcement is duty bound to a system that is filled with the strictest guidelines, checks and balances, and rights and privileges provided by the law. The system, by design and practice, begins and ends adversarial to the prosecution. Prosecutors must prove guilt, rather than defendants proving their innocence.

“No one is more committed to a criminal justice system that serves the public with the highest ethical and professional standards than those of us who serve the victims of crime in our criminal justice system,” Schultz said. “Our overriding responsibility to seek justice compels us to continually find ways to improve the system, which is why we felt duty-bound to ensure our perspective and our ideas were clearly presented with the release of the advisory committee’s report.”

Recommendations to best ensure accurate and reliable convictions include:

• reform existing DNA laws to enable more DNA testing and more DNA-related investigations prior to trial;
• reform the Wiretap Act to allow for the admission of more electronically-recorded evidence;
• begin a pilot program to study whether and how statewide electronic recording of interrogations should be implemented;
• expand police training on non-suggestive identification procedures;
• establish a properly-funded system for preserving biological evidence;
• establish an independent forensic advisory board with appropriate investigative protocols.

Click here to view the Independent Report of Law Enforcement and Victim Representative Members of the Advisory Committee on Wrongful Convictions.