GUEST COMMENTARY: In wake of Ferguson case, more safeguards needed to protect justice system

Wednesday, January 22, 2014 | 2:30 p.m. CST; updated 3:29 p.m. CST, Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Although Ryan Ferguson’s case did not represent an exoneration, it has caused many Missourians to question their confidence in the criminal justice system.

Had the reforms proposed by the Integrity of Justice Act, introduced in the Missouri legislature in 2002, been in place, it is likely that a more reliable assessment of responsibility would have occurred.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. stated, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” The wrongful conviction of citizens for crimes they didn’t commit is a substantial problem that can be addressed by the adoption of several “best practice” reforms already adopted by a number of states across the country.

According to the Innocence Project, 312 people in U.S. History, 18 of whom were sentenced to the death penalty, have been freed after DNA evidence proved them innocent. The average person exonerated byDNA served 13.6 years behind bars.

In 2013, 10 men were exonerated by DNA. Flawed eyewitness testimony was a factor in three-quarters of wrongful convictions. False confessions played a role in a quarter of them.

DNA testing is not always an option. First biological evidence – hair, blood, semen, or saliva – must be present and preserved. In 90 percent to 95 percent of major felonies, it’s not.

New DNA evidence has helped exonerate nine Missourians who had been wrongfully convicted of crimes they did not commit. Eight of those are either African-American or Hispanic.

In 2012, the research arm of the Department of Justice, under the auspices of the National Institute of Justice, concluded a study of a 14-year period of convictions for murder and/or sexual assault in the state of Virginia.

The study titled, “Post-Conviction DNA Testing & Wrongful Convictions,” concluded that 7.8 percent of the convicted were exonerated. In an additional 5.3 percent of cases, DNA evidence was supportive of exoneration. Combined, these statistics total to a 13.1 percent likelihood of these citizens being wrongfully convicted of these serious crimes in the state of Virginia.

Another relevant government study from 1996, titled “Convicted by Juries, Exonerated by Science,” found in a review of crime labs that DNA exonerated 25 percent of the arrested suspects as the perpetrator of the crime.

Independent analysis has argued that 10 percent of those presently incarcerated in the U.S., roughly 200,000 citizens, are innocent of the crime for which they are presently imprisoned.

Locally, cases such as Ryan Ferguson’s have made us aware that there are innocent people behind bars. Conscientious citizens must consider the need for additional safeguards to protect the integrity of our criminal justice system.

Liberty is a fundamental value and should only be infringed when government has exercised the utmost diligence in accurately obtaining and assessing information of wrong doing. We must demand “best practices” to ensure due diligence, before life or liberty is denied in the name of justice.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo in his 2013 State of the State Address, called for the reform of eyewitness evidence handling and recording interrogations as they are two of the leading causes of wrongful convictions.

Reducing mistaken eyewitness identifications and eliminating the editor/reporting officer as the conveyors of what occurred would dramatically reduce false confessions.

Recorded interviews reduce allegations of coercion and prevent memory erosion or expansion by preserving memory at its highest reliability. Former Rep. Judy Baker and former Sens. Chuck Graham and Mary Bland were co-sponsors of previous versions of the Integrity of Justice Act, which dealt with these issues.

All but one of the present Boone County legislative delegation and Gov. Nixon have either been dismissive or hostile to these proposed reforms. State Sen. Keaveny, D-St. Louis, is sponsoring legislation (SB 732) relating to eyewitness identification, custodial interrogations and forensic evidence.

If you value liberty, and want to ensure that the guilty are held accountable and no innocent citizen’s life or liberty is wrongly sacrificed in the name of justice, you must contact your elected representative and demand improvement in the criminal justice system for all Missourians.

Stephen Wyse is a Columbia attorney, past chairman of the Missouri Bar subcommittee on DNA exoneration and a police officer.

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