Pennsylvania Advisory Committee on Wrongful Convictions Calls for Safeguards To Protect Innocent Defendants
The Report of the Advisory Committee on Wrongful Convictions was finally published this week after years of research. Its findings and conclusions were based on several key principles. The first was that in order for citizens to have confidence in the justice system, they have to trust that for the most part the system convicts guilty individuals and lets innocent individuals go free. The Committee also acknowledged that this can never be a perfect system. There will always be innocent individuals convicted of crimes they did not do and guilty individuals who will go free. The problem then becomes how to balance the dichotomy between convicting guilty individuals, with as little cost to the state and emotional toll on the victim as possible, while convicting as few innocent individuals as possible.
With these principles in mind, the committee outlined the various factors that lead to wrongful convictions as well as various proposals to limit those factors. Some of the primary causes of wrongful convictions are mistaken eyewitness identification, false confessions, bad informant testimony, inaccurate scientific evidence, and bad lawyering. The Committee submitted a substantial list of recommendations to be implemented by combination of statute, procedural change, and legal rule change. Some of the recommendations involve simple changes to how law enforcement conduct interrogations and lineups. These changes are designed to mitigate the effects of bias towards securing a conviction. Other changes require much more substantial changes, such as a recommendation that all public defenders be paid by the Commonwealth to ensure that they receive equal and adequate pay across the state. This proposal is designed to diminish the effects that bad lawyering has in some areas that do not have well-funded public defenders.
The Committee considers these proposals to be the best options to ensure that fewer innocent individuals are convicted in Pennsylvania without placing a significant burden on state and local officials. While some of the proposals will result in significant costs for the Commonwealth, the vast majority of the proposals will have little or no economic impact on state and local government. DNA evidence has played a major role in bringing the issue of wrongful convictions to light. There is no definitive way to know or even estimate how many individuals have been wrongfully convicted in Pennsylvania, but the Committee believes that these proposals will ensure that even fewer individuals in Pennsylvania will be wrongfully convicted.
The full text of the Report of the Advisory Committee on Wrongful Convictions can be found here. In the full Report, the Committee fully explains the evidence that they found, the reasons behind their proposals, and the possible effects of those proposals. You can read Steven Fairlie’s Innocence Project opinion here.