When New York's Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman asked panel members for one wish to improve wrongful convictions, Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. responded without hesitating: "More support for ex-offenders," citing a 39 percent recidivism rate.
The panel was part of a two-hour symposium that identified deep-rooted decade-old problems and called for solutions at every level of the judicial process.
With 100,000 cases every year and 10,000 indictments, Vance said his office moves a lot of volume. Asked by Lippman to make one change, the former defense lawyer said he would "exercise discipline on the front end" to avoid pursuing the wrong paths.
Vance used the forum -- where 250 students and visitors packed the Dean Alexander Moot Court Room -- to announce a new Conviction Integrity Program that will create a Conviction Integrity chief, an internal committee and an external advisory panel.
Author Amy Bach called the courts the most "unexamined institution in America," noting that our schools and utilities are monitored and examined far better than our judicial system.
Coerced confessions, unreliable witnesses, mishandling of evidence, overzealous law enforcement and bad science were among the areas called out as known problems. James Acker, a professor from University of Albany's School of Criminal Justice, quoted a report from 1932 that identified these same issues to emphasize the inaction surrounding wrongful convictions. "There is still a lot we don't know about the causes of wrongful convictions."
Panelists agreed that a human system can not be a perfect system, but it can improve, particularly given New York's high ranking against other states for wrongful convictions and executions.
The program was The Fourth Annual Chief Judge Lawrence H. Cooke State Constitutional Commentary Symposium, hosted by the Albany Law Review. Saul M. Kassin, Ph.D., Professor of Psychology, John Jay College of Criminal Justice, and Stephen Saloom, Policy Director for the Innocence Project, also served on the panel. Student Jillian Kasow, Executive Editor for State Constitutional Commentary, led the event with Professor Vincent Bonventre.
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