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Opinion

Editorial: The innocent deserve justice

Jeffrey Deskovic, then 33, right, stands with his

Jeffrey Deskovic, then 33, right, stands with his mother, Linda McGarr, after he was released from prison in 2006. He spent 16 years behind bars because of a wrongful conviction in a rape and murder case. Photo Credit: AP/Innocence Project

Prosecutors prosecute, but their higher calling is the pursuit of justice. When there's reason to believe an innocent person has been unjustly convicted, that means being willing to revisit the prosecution, warts and all. Now district attorneys will have the state's help to set things right.

New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman recently announced that a new conviction review bureau has been created to take a careful look at potential wrongful convictions. The bureau will also review the attorney general's prosecutorial procedures. And it will work to more quickly resolve lawsuits by people wrongly imprisoned and then exonerated who seek compensation from the state.

Schneiderman kept an important campaign promise when he established the bureau. It will help promote justice and faith in the courts. The assist from the state will be especially helpful for small counties where prosecutors have limited manpower.

But there's a problem that could limit the bureau's reach. The attorney general doesn't have jurisdiction in crimes such as murder and rape. The state's 62 district attorneys do. That's as it should be, but it means the attorney general's investigators and lawyers have to be invited to participate. So the new bureau could be locked out of the very cases where it's needed most -- those where prosecutors are determined to let sleeping dogs lie.

District attorneys across the state should set ego and territoriality aside and embrace this effort to clear the innocent, as many have. If necessary, the attorney general should use his bully pulpit to muscle them to do the right thing.

The case of Jeffrey Deskovic, a Westchester man convicted of murder and rape in 1991, is a cautionary tale of what can happen when district attorneys don't yield.

Deskovic was 16 when a 15-year-old classmate was beaten, raped and strangled. Months after her body was found, detectives questioned the teen for six hours and administered three polygraph tests with neither a lawyer nor his parents present. By the end of the interrogation, Deskovic was curled in the fetal position crying. He confessed to the crimes. DNA evidence tested before his trial revealed the semen from the victim's rape kit wasn't his, but a jury convicted him on the strength of his confession.

Starting in 1997 Deskovic tried to get authorities to retest the DNA with newer, more sophisticated techniques, and to check it against the state DNA databank in search of a match. Westchester District Attorney Jeanine Pirro -- who was not the DA when Deskovic was convicted -- rejected his request and fought his federal court petition. Finally in 2006, Pirro's successor, District Attorney Janet DiFiore, had the new DNA test done. The sample matched that of a man in prison for murdering another woman. Deskovic was freed after 16 years behind bars. He's one of 289 people nationally -- including 24 in New York State -- freed with the help of the Innocence Project, a nonprofit organization dedicated to exonerating people wrongfully convicted.

The legal system is fallible, so the search for justice can't stop with a guilty verdict. Imprisoned, yet innocent, is a nightmarish combination.

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