Innocence Project and Brooklyn Pol Unite for DNA Reform

March 9, 2012 Brooklyn Eagle Staff
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Exonerated Man From Brooklyn Law School Clinic Says New Legislation Lacks Meaning

NEW YORK — Leaders from the Innocence Project and the New York State Bar Association, saying the innocent should not be punished for crimes committed by others, this week called on state legislators to enact reforms that they say will “truly would reduce wrongful convictions and improve public safety.”

At a joint press conference, Peter Neufeld, co-director of the Innocence Project, which is affiliated with Cardozo School of Law, and Vincent E. Doyle III, president of the New York State Bar Association, said the proposal to expand the DNA database does not go far enough to prevent innocent people from going to prison while the real perpetrators remain free to commit other crimes.

Neufeld and Doyle were joined at the press conference by Assembly Codes Committee Chair Joseph R. Lentol (D-Brooklyn), sponsor of wrongful conviction legislation; Steven Barnes, Fernando Bermudez and Frank Sterling, who were each exonerated after being incarcerated for nearly two decades for separate crimes; and Sylvia Bouchard, Barnes’ mother, who discussed the impact of wrongful convictions on family members.

Bermudez’s exoneration was initially pursued by members and professors at Brooklyn Law School’s now-defunct Second Look Clinic, which made strides in his case before the clinic was disbanded and Bermudez’s case was turned over to other attorneys.

Bermudez spent more than 18 years in prison in the shooting death of a 16-year-old boy in Greenwich Village. His conviction was based on the testimony of eyewitnesses who later recanted. There was no DNA evidence in his case, but he was ultimately freed after it was proven that police and prosecutors manipulated the eyewitness evidence against him.

“I spent years fighting for my freedom and was ultimately able to prove my innocence without DNA. Most people aren’t so fortunate,” said Bermudez. “I can’t even believe that New York lawmakers are thinking of expanding the database without enacting meaningful reforms that would actually prevent wrongful convictions. No one should have to endure what I did, especially when these reforms can make the system better.”

In his remarks, Neufeld said a comprehensive package that complements the DNA expansion will go further to prevent wrongful convictions than the DNA expansion alone.

“Expanding the database is only going to have a marginal effect on the number of new crimes solved and will be virtually no help to the overwhelming majority of the wrongly convicted whose cases simply lack biological evidence,” said Neufeld. “If lawmakers are serious about their desire to prevent wrongful convictions and improve public safety, they will pass a reform package that improves police investigation practices to ensure that the right person is convicted.”

“DNA is a potent law enforcement tool. But expanding the DNA database alone will not exonerate the innocent and convict the guilty,” Doyle agreed. As evidence, he pointed to the findings of a 2009 State Bar report, which, with the leadership of now New York City Criminal Courts and Kings County Criminal Matters Administrative Judge Barry Kamins, studied the cases of 53 innocent New Yorkers who were convicted of crimes they did not commit.

The Bar Association’s Task Force on Wrongful Convictions identified several factors contributing to wrongful convictions. It recommended: videotaping interrogations in order to discourage coerced confessions; improving police lineups to achieve more accurate eyewitness testimony; requiring prosecutors to turn over more evidence that might help clear a suspect; and allowing defendants to obtain DNA evidence even after they have pleaded guilty.

Lentol, a longtime supporter of wrongful conviction legislation, said that when the wrong person is convicted of a crime, all New Yorkers suffer.

“The person who is wrongly convicted is unjustly punished. The victim is given a false sense of security and has to relive the crime a second time when the truth comes out. And we are all put at risk when the real perpetrator is left free to commit other crimes,” Lentol said.

Additional reporting by Ryan Thompson of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle.

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