Laws would help keep innocent out of prison
By Gloria Romero, Elaine Alquist and Mark Ridley-Thomas
Article Launched: 09/07/2007 01:34:05 AM PDT
It's hard to imagine why someone would confess to a double murder he
didn't commit. It's hard to imagine, that is, until you hear Harold
Hall describe the 17 hours of intense interrogation he endured when
he was 18 years old. The only way out was to tell his interrogators
what they wanted to hear. Prosecutors bolstered his false confession
with false testimony by a jailhouse informant. The jury convicted him
and prosecutors asked for the death penalty. Hall told the jury that
he was an innocent man. They spared him from the death penalty, but
sentenced him to life without parole. Hall lost 19 years of his life
before he was finally granted a new trial and the charges dismissed.
This past January, Timothy Atkins was serving a life sentence for
second-degree murder and robbery. In February, he walked into the
arms of his family and stood on the steps of the courthouse with his
lawyers from the California Innocence Project, a free man for the
first time in 20 years. Atkins was wrongfully convicted based on
mistaken eyewitness identification and the testimony of an informant
who had been told by Los Angeles police, "You're not going to leave
until you tell us something."
This summer, the Innocence Project in New York marked the 200th case
in which DNA evidence freed an innocent person. Most wrongful
convictions result from coerced confessions, false testimony by
jailhouse informants or mistaken eyewitness identifications. Wrongful
convictions lead to three
significant injustices: an innocent person is incarcerated; criminal
investigations end, leaving the real perpetrator free to commit more
crimes; and victims' families suffer. In addition, police or the
state may be sued for wrongful incarceration leading to large
To prevent all of these injustices, we have introduced a trio of
bills to help end wrongful convictions, as recommended by the
California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice. Chaired
by former Attorney General John Van de Kamp, the commission includes
representatives of law enforcement, prosecutors, defense attorneys
and victims' advocates and has recommended these legislative reforms.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed two similar bills last year.
Although he praised the concept of the bills, the governor cited
"drafting errors" in his vetoes. Those "errors" have since been
corrected. This week, the Legislature passed all three bills and sent
them to Schwarzenegger. In the interest of justice, we urge him to
sign all three bills this month.
Electronic recording of custodial interrogations would help end
coerced confessions and protect both defendants and the police. SB
511 (Alquist) would mandate recording of the entire interrogation,
including the Miranda warning. Several other states already require
recording of the full interrogation, including Iowa, New Mexico and
Wisconsin. Prosecutors and law enforcement officers praise the
practice in every state where it is now required.
Misidentification of perpetrators by eyewitnesses causes the most
wrongful convictions. SB 756 (Ridley-Thomas) would require the
attorney general to develop voluntary guidelines for conducting
lineups based on documented best practices.
The third proposed law would curb false testimony by jailhouse
informants by requiring corroborating evidence for all such
testimony. Jailhouse informants have strong reasons to lie because
they are offered leniency in return for information. SB 609 (Romero)
would not affect a large number of cases in California, but it would
provide important protections, particularly in death penalty cases.
Working to free innocent people wrongly imprisoned is a long process,
often taken up by volunteer attorneys and law students who can serve
only a small fraction of those who need assistance. This trio of
bills would curb the most common causes of wrongful convictions and
protect defendants, police, victims and the state.
GLORIA ROMERO is the state Senate majority leader and represents part
of Los Angeles. ELAINE ALQUIST is a state senator representing San
Jose. MARK RIDLEY-THOMAS is a state senator representing part of Los
Angeles. All Democrats, they wrote this article for the Mercury News.