Rush to correct judgment

Dr. Richard Ek is a retired Chico State University journalism professor and department chairman who contributes frequently to the Chico News & Review.

As we know, our criminal-justice system is far from perfect, and over time its failings have sent many innocent people to the execution chamber or to prison for long periods of time.

The advent of DNA testing has brought the warts of the system into sharp relief, exonerating prisoners found guilty “beyond a reasonable doubt” by a jury. The presentation of DNA evidence from the crime scene has led to freedom for poor and forgotten people, especially minorities, who lacked resources to fight for justice.

A nonprofit organization called the Innocence Project, started in 1992 and operated by the Benjamin Cardoza School of Law in New York City, has become the most important means of releasing innocent people from prison. It handles only cases where post-conviction testing of DNA evidence can yield conclusive proof of innocence.

Very recently the project celebrated a milestone: 200 prisoners exonerated through DNA testing. Together, these prisoners served a total of 2,475 years for crimes they did not commit. They also represent just the tip of the iceberg because only a small fraction of cases involve evidence that could be tested for DNA, and even among those cases, evidence is often lost or destroyed before it can be tested.

In its first 10 years the project won freedom for 126 inmates, 108 of whose convictions involved eyewitness identification error. False confessions were the second leading cause of error.

In light of these facts, one would expect Governor Schwarzenegger to take the lead in fighting for justice. Not so. The best recent example is the fate last September of SB 1544, which sought uniform guidelines for the gathering and handling of eyewitness identification, and SB 171, which would require law enforcement agencies to electronically record all interrogations of those charged with murder or other violent felonies.

Although the state Commission for the Fair Administration of Justice strongly supported both bills, our governor vetoed them, SB 1544 because it “went too far” and SB 171 primarily for “flawed wording.” In my view, he simply nodded to prosecutors and the powerful prison guards union that like the status quo.

Now the governor, who praised both measures as having “laudable goals,” should lead efforts to reconsider the bills. If he signed even revised versions of these primary conviction tools, he could cut some of the 53,000 new prison beds and the $7 billion to pay for them that he campaigned so hard to get this spring. Also, prosecutors statewide need to recommit to their ethical pledge to put justice first and stem their headlong rush to maximize conviction rates that look good on their annual reports.