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Guest Column: A call for criminal justice reform

Ferguson's case made us aware that there are innocent people behind bars.

Jan. 21, 2014

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Although Ryan Ferguson’s case did not represent an exoneration, it has caused many Missourians to question their confidence in the criminal justice system. Had the reforms proposed by the Integrity of Justice Act, introduced in the Missouri Legislature in 2002, been in place, it is likely that a more reliable assessment of responsibility would have occurred.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. stated, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to Justice everywhere.” The wrongful conviction of citizens for crimes they didn’t commit is a substantial problem that can be addressed by the adoption of several “Best Practice” reforms already adopted by a number of states across the country.

According to the Innocence Project, 312 people in U.S. History, 18 of whom were sentenced to the death penalty, have been freed after DNA evidence proved them innocent. The average DNA exoneree served 13.6 years behind bars.

In 2013, ten men were exonerated by DNA. Flawed eyewitness testimony was a factor in three-quarters of wrongful convictions. False confessions played a role in a quarter of them. DNA testing is not always an option. First biological evidence – hair, blood, semen, or saliva – must be present and preserved. In 90-95% of major felonies, it’s not.

New DNA evidence has helped exonerate Nine Missourians who had been wrongfully convicted of crimes they did not commit. Eight of those nine are either African-American or Hispanic. In 2012, the research arm of the Department of Justice, under the auspices of the National Institute of Justice, concluded a study of a fourteen year period of convictions for murder and/or sexual assault in the state of Virginia. The study entitled, “Post-Conviction DNA Testing & Wrongful Convictions,” concluded that 7.8 % of the convicted were exonerated, and in an additional 5.3 % of cases, DNA evidence was supportive of exoneration. Combined, these statistics total to a 13.1 % likelihood of these citizens being wrongfully convicted of these serious crimes in the state of Virginia. Another relevant government study from 1996, titled “Convicted by Juries, Exonerated by Science,” found in a review of crime labs that DNA exonerated 25% of the arrested suspects as the perpetrator of the crime.

Independent analysis has argued that 10% of those presently incarcerated in the U.S., roughly 200,000 citizens, are innocent of the crime for which they are presently imprisoned.

Locally, cases such as Ryan Ferguson’s have made us aware that there are innocent people behind bars. Conscientious citizens must consider the need for additional safeguards to protect the integrity of our criminal justice system. Liberty is a fundamental value and should only be infringed when government has exercised the utmost diligence in accurately obtaining and assessing information of wrong doing. We must demand “Best Practices” to ensure due diligence, before life or liberty is denied in the name of Justice.

New York Governor, Andrew Cuomo, in his 2013 State of the State Address, called for the reform of eyewitness evidence handling and recording interrogations as they are two of the leading causes of wrongful convictions. Reducing mistaken eyewitness identifications and eliminating the editor/reporting officer as the conveyors of what occurred would dramatically reduce false confessions. Recorded interviews reduce allegations of coercion and prevent memory erosion or expansion by preserving memory at its highest reliability. Former Representative Judy Baker and former Senators Chuck Graham and Mary Bland were co-sponsors of previous versions of the Integrity of Justice Act which dealt with these issues. All but one of the present Boone County legislative delegation and Governor Nixon have either been dismissive or hostile to these proposed reforms. State Senator Keavney (D) St. Louis, is sponsoring legislation (SB 732) relating to eyewitness identification, custodial interrogations and forensic evidence.

If you value liberty, and want to ensure that the guilty are held accountable and no innocent citizen’s life or liberty is wrongly sacrificed in the name of justice, you must contact your elected representative and demand improvement in the criminal justice system for all Missourians.

Respectfully submitted,

Stephen Wyse, attorney

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Article comments

Jan. 30, 2014 at 6:58 a.m.

Bill Branham: Thank you for your excellent article. I would only add, to reinforce all your points, that though DNA is credited with forcing this country to admit it makes mistakes, it is widely held that DNA is involved in only 10% of wrongful conviction cases. The National Registry of Exonerations, a database being built by the U of Mich and Northwestern law schools, has just topped 1300. Furthermore, whereas we have an accurate account of DNA exonerations, there is no end in sight for how many total exonerations will be documented, because the government has never kept any records.

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