October 1, 2007

DNA exonerations heralding broad legal changes

The highly publicized exonerations of hundreds of convicts through DNA technology is leading to rapid and sweeping legal changes around the United States. Among the new laws being proposed and passed in states all around the country:
  • New standards for the identification of suspects by eyewitnesses, which is far and away the largest cause of wrongful conviction. Experts suggest requiring sequential rather than simultaneous photo lineups, and "double-blind" systems in which the officer administering a photo lineup is kept ignorant of the identity of the true suspect.
  • Laws requiring police to electronically record interrogations to ensure that police did not coerce suspects or provide them with the incriminating information contained in their confessions.
  • Efforts to require independent corroboration of testimony from police informants, who are often unreliable.
  • Commissions to expedite the cases of those who were wrongfully convicted and to consider changes to legal procedures.
As suggested by a prominent story in today's New York Times, the DNA exonerations have contributed to a rapid change in public opinion. In a recent Gallup Poll, for instance, 59 percent of Americans believed that an innocent person had been wrongly executed in the past five years; these skeptical people thought that about 1 out of 10 of people who are executed overall are actually innocent.

Experts on false confessions tend to agree that the numbers are far higher than previously thought. Convening in El Paso, Texas last week for a conference on this timely topic, experts repeatedly stated that those exonerated through DNA technology represent only the "tip of the iceberg."

In enacting legal reforms to address this problem, the United States is following in the footsteps of Great Britain, which implemented legal changes several years ago in the wake of a series of highly publicized wrongful conviction cases involving the Irish Republican Army and others.