Exonerations Change How Justice System Builds a Prosecution

By Darryl Fears
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 3, 2007

Jerry Miller is the newest poster child of the wrongfully convicted, the 200th to be exonerated by DNA evidence -- after he spent 25 years behind bars in Illinois for a rape he did not commit.

But Miller, a black man, hardly stands out in the crowd of the exonerated. Of the 200 people whose convictions have been overturned as a result of DNA evidence since 1989, 60 percent have been black or Latino, according to the Innocence Project, a liberal organization that works to free the wrongfully convicted. Of those exonerated after a rape conviction, 85 percent were black men accused of assaulting a white woman.

In contrast, black men are accused in 33.6 percent of rapes or sexual assaults of white women, according to a 2005 Bureau of Justice Statistics study of victims.

"What it says to me is that, ultimately, if you are a black man charged with sexually assaulting a white woman, the likelihood that you will be convicted, even if you are stone-cold innocent, is much, much higher," said Peter J. Neufeld, a co-director of the Innocence Project who asserted that the 200 exonerations "are the tip of the iceberg."

The overturning of convictions based on DNA evidence is prompting changes in criminal procedures that reach beyond race. States and cities are starting to enact or consider laws to change decades-old police methods such as eyewitness identifications and police interrogations that lead to confessions.

"The exonerations have been an extremely important force in getting the legal system to recognize there's a problem," said Gary L. Wells, an Iowa State University psychology professor whose research led to new practices in eyewitness identification. "I've been working at this for 30 years, and before DNA they pretty much ignored the studies."

In New Jersey, where four convictions were overturned by DNA evidence, the state attorney general issued a directive requiring law enforcement agencies to electronically record police interrogations for all violent crimes to guard against false confessions, said Paul H. Heinzel, a deputy attorney general for the state.

At least 500 smaller police jurisdictions have begun to tape confessions, and 20 states -- including Maryland, Virginia, California, Florida and Tennessee -- are considering it.

"Police and prosecutors I've talked to thought it was a good thing," said Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), a former county prosecutor whose state started taping 11 years ago, after a ruling from its supreme court. "It builds police credibility. People talked about it being too expensive. But I would put buying a cheap tape over paying some of these multimillion-dollar wrongful-conviction judgments any day."

New Jersey also led the way in discarding the old police lineup, in which victims and witnesses identified suspects first from an array of photographs and later from an in-person lineup as detectives intent on solving the case stood by, sometimes offering encouragement. The state now presents individuals -- in person or in photos -- one after the other so witnesses cannot compare one member of a lineup to another, making relative judgments "about which individual most looks like the perpetrator," according to guidelines set by the New Jersey attorney general.

Bad eyewitness identifications contributed to 75 percent of wrongful convictions in cases that were overturned by DNA evidence, according to the Innocence Project. Georgia, West Virginia, Connecticut, New Mexico and Texas, where 25 convictions were overturned by DNA evidence, are now considering legislation that would similarly change eyewitness identifications.

Miami is considering an overhaul of its procedures, said John F. Timoney, chief of police. The city now videotapes all confessions. DNA evidence is tested in every rape case. The city has collected more DNA evidence than its labs can test. Timoney said he is in discussions with the district attorney over whether to implement a sequential process for eyewitness identification.

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