April 10, 2012
New State Office to Review Questionable Convictions
By JOHN ELIGON
Eric T. Schneiderman, the New York State attorney general, is creating a bureau to investigate criminal cases across the state in which convictions have been called into question.
The Conviction Review Bureau represents the first statewide initiative by a law enforcement agency to address potential wrongful convictions, at a time when many in the state’s criminal justice system, including the chief judge, have been calling for changes like the videotaping of police interrogations and the use of new practices for eyewitnesses’ identifications.
“There is only one person who wins when the wrong person is convicted of a crime: the real perpetrator, who remains free to commit more crimes,” Mr. Schneiderman said in a statement. “For victims, their families and any of us who could suffer the nightmare of being wrongly accused, it is imperative that we do everything possible to maximize accuracy, justice and reliability in our justice system.”
The bureau will consist of one current assistant attorney general, who will be able to call upon investigators and assistant attorneys general as needed. A panel of seven senior lawyers in the office will advise the bureau.
Mr. Schneiderman said his office would work with district attorneys across the state to identify cases in which there might be significant doubts surrounding a conviction. If a district attorney’s office chooses to refer the case to the attorney general, then the attorney general’s office will have jurisdiction to reinvestigate the case and handle the subsequent legal proceedings.
Though questions remain as to whether local prosecutors will be reluctant to cede jurisdiction to the bureau in highly controversial cases, Mr. Schneiderman’s office said it had already received support from several prosecutors, including Janet DiFiore of Westchester County, Kathleen B. Hogan of Warren County and Cyrus R. Vance Jr. of Manhattan.
The attorney general said he also planned a review of his own office’s investigative practices to ensure that it is following proper procedures.
The bureau will also decide how to resolve civil cases in which someone who was wrongfully imprisoned is seeking money from the state. Those cases are in the attorney general’s jurisdiction. The office has been criticized for its reluctance at times to compensate the wrongfully convicted without a lengthy, costly court proceeding.
In a ruling last year, the New York Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court, said that a former inmate named Douglas Warney could seek compensation for his wrongful conviction, though the attorney general’s office — first under Andrew M. Cuomo, and then under Mr. Schneiderman — had argued that Mr. Warney, while innocent, had brought about his own conviction by making a confession. DNA evidence cleared Mr. Warney of murder, and his lawyers said police officers had fed him details of the crime to manufacture a confession.
“The attorney general’s office is very defensive about paying out awards on behalf of New York State,” said Donald M. Thompson, a lawyer for Mr. Warney, who is still negotiating a financial settlement with the state. “Part of it is, it’s their job to be.”
Mr. Thompson said he hoped that New York would adopt the approach of other states in which a formula is used to determine how much money people are awarded once they are found to have been wrongfully convicted.
A subcommittee of the Conviction Review Bureau will assess the office’s practices on settlement negotiations case by case, said Danny Kanner, a spokesman for Mr. Schneiderman. By having a group that consistently reviews these civil cases, the office said, it hopes to make the settlement process quicker, more effective and more efficient.
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