The recent inspector general report about the Nassau County police crime laboratory characterized the facility's failures as a "tortured history of significant problems." The investigation, ordered by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, found long-standing problems with how evidence was handled at the lab. Leadership sidestepped the issue. State agencies responsible for oversight and guidance proved unable or unwilling to get involved. Prosecutors kept themselves unaware of the depth of the problem or the need for change.
Cuomo should be commended for insisting on a thorough review of the lab. Next, he should turn his attention toward serious problems with the way the state handles criminal evidence.
New York has a serious problem with wrongful convictions. We have the third-largest number of DNA exonerations in the nation, yet lag far behind many states when it comes to enacting laws, policies and police practices that prevent them. Albany is aware of the problem but can't get its act together to enact the simple reforms called for by so many in the legal system.
In 2007, the New York State Bar Association convened a wrongful conviction task force, co-chaired by Westchester County District Attorney Janet DiFiore and attorney Barry Kamins, now a judge. It strongly recommended the enactment of changes to eyewitness identification procedures, the mandatory recording of interrogations, improvements to the state's post-conviction DNA testing law, and reforms that would provide a stronger measure of justice for the wrongfully convicted.
In 2009, Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman of the New York Court of Appeals established a permanent task force to examine the causes of wrongful convictions and make recommendations. The group -- representatives from police, prosecutorial, judicial and defense organizations; the attorney general; the commissioner of the Division of Criminal Justice Services; and the Senate and Assembly chairs of criminal and judicial matters -- has recommended major changes to the way police conduct lineups and interrogations, and better access to DNA testing, including granting judges the authority to order the comparison of post-conviction DNA testing of crime scene evidence to the convicted offender DNA database.
Sadly, there's only one thing keeping these recommendations from becoming law: the all-too-familiar dysfunction in Albany. In 2007, the Innocence Project released "Lessons Not Learned," a report on wrongful convictions and the need for reform in New York State. We released it again two years ago, after the legislature refused to pass these reforms. Last year, the Assembly passed an omnibus wrongful conviction reform package, but the Senate refused to consider it.
Every wrongful conviction is devastating for the person convicted of a crime he or she did not commit. It is also a threat to public safety, because the real perpetrator remains free. That's exactly what happened in the case of Frank Sterling, who was exonerated by DNA evidence in 2009 for the 1988 murder of an elderly woman in Rochester. While Sterling was wrongly incarcerated for the murder, the actual perpetrator went on to murder a 4-year-old girl. Had the shoddy evidence against Sterling been recognized before conviction, the second tragic murder may well have been prevented, Sterling wouldn't have spent 17 years in prison for a crime he didn't commit. And the victim's family in his case wouldn't have had to relive the horrible crime a second time when law enforcement finally got the real murderer.
Enacting best practices to identify the guilty while also protecting the innocent should be a no-brainer. It's a simple matter of public safety and justice. The people of New York deserve better. The political leadership in Albany has had plenty of time to get educated on this issue. It's now time for New York to catch up with the rest of the nation and enact the simple reforms that will make us all safer.