Wrongful convictions

Conference explores reasons for an injustice that happens far too often

Kenneth Starr

Kenneth Starr

The issue of wrongful conviction got some fresh exploration last weekend in a conference hosted by the UCLA School of Law.

The Faces of Wrongful Conviction Conference included recognizable figures such as state Senate Majority Leader Gloria Romero, attorney Barry Scheck of the Innocence Project and former Whitewater prosecutor Kenneth Starr.

Lesser known but just as prominent at the conference were 17 exonerated California inmates, who shared their experiences at workshops. Sessions focused on causes of wrongful convictions: “junk science” in the courtroom, mistaken eyewitness identification, false confessions, false testimony by snitch witnesses, misconduct by police and prosecutors, inadequate defense and bad lawyering. Several other workshops focused on the effects of incarceration, compensation and social services for the wrongly convicted, and needed legislative reform.

Romero set the tone with her opening remarks. Stressing the need for change in budget priorities, she drew attention to the troubling fact that California each year spends $115,000 to house a youth in the California Youth Authority, $35,000 for an incarcerated adult and only $10,000 per child on public education.

Key conference concerns were the inadequacy of indigent defense and current efforts at habeas corpus reform. The writ of habeas corpus makes possible the examination and challenge of the lawfulness of a defendant’s detention once his or her appeals have been exhausted.

“Very few, if any, of the exonerated would be out of prison without [the writ of habeas corpus],” Lynne Coffin of California Attorneys for Criminal Justice said. “Federal courts overturned either the conviction or the death sentence in 40 percent of the capital cases reviewed from 1973 to 1995. This was possible because of the writ. Yet a proposed amendment to the Patriot Act would severely limit the time available to a defendant in which to file a federal habeas petition, as well as the time available for litigation in federal court.”

Referring to a 2004 report by the American Bar Association’s Standing Committee on Legal Aid and Indigent Defendants—Gideon’s Broken Promise: America’s Continuing Quest for Equal Justice—Sacramento’s assistant federal defender, Tim Foley, spoke of the many poor who are provided “woefully inadequate legal representation by lawyers who are overworked, ineffective, lazy or negligent.”

In fact, several times during the conference, panelists discussed the heavy caseloads of most public defenders, many of whom are poorly paid and receive scant resources for investigative work.

UC Berkeley professor Elisabeth Semel, director of the school’s Death Penalty Clinic, said California does not meet the standards set by the American Bar Association for counsel in capital cases.

“How many on death row are innocent? Far more than any of us suspected…,” she said. “Most of the exonerated are exonerated because of post-conviction state or federal habeas corpus proceedings.”

One of the exonerated was Gloria Killian, a former law student and currently a professional prison-rights activist, who was convicted of murder in 1986 as a result of false testimony by an informant and misconduct by the prosecutor. Killian spent 18 years in prison before being released in 2002.

In the conference’s closing plenary, she pled for a moratorium on executions in California “to give us time to find out what we’re doing wrong, so we can stop executing innocent people.”

Starr, dean and professor at Pepperdine Law School, outlined steps needed to reform the justice system. Because of the problem of providing adequate defense for the indigent, Starr asserted that “judges need to insist that the largest law firms in the country be required to assist in capital cases.”

He also spoke of the need to revive the granting of clemency, pointing specifically to Governor Schwarzenegger’s February denial of clemency for convicted murderer Michael Morales even after the sentencing judge in the case, Charles McGrath, advocated for clemency, stating that his sentencing decision was based on flawed information.

“Michael Morales’ case was the first time in the history of California that a governor denied the request of the sentencing judge,” Starr said in the closing remarks. “It may have been the first time in the history of the United States that a governor denied the request of the sentencing judge.”