February 17, 2013

IN THE AFTERMATH of the exoneration of a District of Columbia man who was incarcerated for 28 years for a murder and rape he didn’t commit, D.C. Superior Court Chief Judge Lee F. Satterfield created a task force to study whether the system had inherent weaknesses that could lead to wrongful convictions. When two other men were subsequently cleared of crimes for which they served lengthy prison terms, that only reinforced the need for scrutiny.

As a result of the system’s commendable willingness to hold itself up to a mirror, new protections are planned that should help guard against the wrong people being placed behind bars.

An ad hoc committee, created by Judge Satterfield in 2011 in response to issues uncovered by the D.C. Public Defender Service in the exoneration of Donald Eugene Gates, has recommended changes aimed at addressing practices that contribute to wrongful convictions. Police, prosecutors and court officials, who served on the committee along with defense attorneys and others, said they would implement the plans affecting court records, police lineups and notification about the use of police informants. Eyewitness misidentifications and faulty testimony from jailhouse informants — some of the factors in the three local cases — account for many wrongful convictions, and so improvements here are particularly important. Barry J. Pollack, president of the board of directors for the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project, called the moves “a good step” that should be applauded.

The committee concluded that the District meets or exceeds national best practices on eight of the 10 generally acknowledged factors behind wrongful convictions. It decided against following the example of other jurisdictions by establishing an innocence commission. Nonetheless, the group agreed to reconvene from time to time to monitor the recommendations and deal with any concerns, a welcome move that acknowledges the importance of ongoing vigilance in rooting out mistakes that lead to wrongful convictions.

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