Editorial | Criminal Justice Failures

Jailing the innocent

The science of DNA on Monday cleared the 200th person wrongfully convicted of a crime in the United States, a record which demands that the criminal justice system fix its serious flaws.

The details of Jerry Miller's unjust imprisonment should no longer shock anyone. He was convicted of rape in Chicago in 1982, based on erroneous eyewitness identification. Miller spent 25 years in prison, proclaiming his innocence. He was already out on parole when DNA evidence finally proved he was innocent. It was too late to give him his freedom, but not too late to clear his name.

Since the first person was exonerated by DNA evidence in 1989, such reversals are becoming more frequent. The 200 people cleared by DNA in the United States spent a combined 2,475 years in prison for crimes they didn't commit.

What if one of them were your brother, or son, or father?

There can be no doubt that there are other innocent people behind bars, including some on death row.

Larry Peterson of Burlington County nearly was sentenced to death in 1989 for murder, instead receiving a sentence of life imprisonment. He spent nearly 20 years behind bars until DNA evidence proved his innocence last year.

The use of DNA also can prove guilt with certainty. Last year, DNA tests proved that Roger Coleman had indeed committed the murder in Virginia for which he was executed in 1992. Death-penalty foes had hoped a posthumous exoneration of Coleman would help their just cause.

Race is a significant factor in many cases. Two-thirds of all black men exonerated by DNA evidence had been wrongfully convicted of raping white women.

The criminal justice system gets the guilty party far more often than it sends an innocent person to jail. But that doesn't mean society can afford to shrug off the miscarriages of justice that do occur.

States, courts and law-enforcement officials need to do more to prevent convictions of the innocent, and to compensate those who were wrongfully imprisoned.

Twenty-one states, including New Jersey, have laws allowing people to get paid for their wrongful incarceration. Pennsylvania is not among them, but an "innocence commission" being formed could recommend compensation. It should.

Incorrect eyewitness identification accounts for 77 percent of wrongful convictions overturned by DNA. States and cities should follow the example of New Jersey in instituting "double-blind" lineups of suspects, in which neither the witness nor the person arranging the lineup knows who the suspect is.

Along with one-by-one viewing of potential suspects, instead of a group lineup, these safeguards can prevent police from inadvertently "tipping off" a witness about a given suspect.

The Innocence Project, which is fighting this good fight, has more information about preventing wrongful convictions at its Web site, www.innocenceproject.org. The battle is far from over. The group's leaders say there are at least 250 such cases pending nationwide.