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After seventeen years, Gregory Taylor was finally freed on February 17th when the three judge panel of the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission unanimously ruled to exonerate him.  North Carolina created the commission to investigate and evaluate post-conviction claims of innocence in 2006 and is the first of its kind in the United States. Taylor, wrongfully convicted of first degree murder in 1993, is the first person to be exonerated by the commission.  

Over 250 people have been exonerated by DNA evidence in the United States.  Many others, like Taylor, did not have the benefit of DNA evidence that could clearly identify the perpetrator.  These cases demonstrate the importance of keeping our courts open to all credible evidence that a mistake has been made.  Unfortunately, in most jurisdictions, barriers of legal procedure too often keep similarly situated defendants from having their claims of innocence considered.  

With the creation of the Innocence Inquiry Commission, the judiciary and legislature in North Carolina rightly recognized the need for a mechanism to identify wrongful convictions and exonerate individuals like Taylor who languish in prison for crimes they did not commit. In addition to taking steps to exonerate the wrongfully convicted, it is critical that jurisdictions evaluate the causes of these miscarriages of justice, and take steps to increase the fairness and accuracy of the criminal justice system. Each wrongful conviction teaches us important lessons about how the system is prone to error, and what can be done to fix it.

For example, Gregory Taylor was wrongfully convicted in large part due to inaccurate forensic testimony. Trial testimony to the effect that blood was found on Taylor's SUV near the scene of the crime on the night of the murder was contradicted by a later test conducted by State Bureau of Investigation that found no blood was present. That finding, however, was never provided to prosecutors, defense attorneys or the court.  The result of that failure was devastating.

False or misleading forensic expert testimony is a leading factor contributing to wrongful convictions.  The Justice Project offers recommendations and solutions for improving the practices and standards of forensic science in Improving the Practice and Use of Forensic Science: A Policy Review.  The reforms recommended in the policy review are designed to implement systemic and necessary changes to the practice and use of forensic science, including the requirement that all forensic science labs develop internal structures and policies to prevent bias in testing and analysis, and to better manage the flow of information between law enforcement investigators, analysts, and prosecutors. These kinds of improvements can dramatically improve the quality and reliability of forensic evidence, preventing the kinds of errors that led to Gregory Taylor's wrongful conviction.

Each wrongful conviction evinces the urgent need to reform our criminal justice system. A fair and accurate system not only prevents wrongful convictions, it more effectively identifies the guilty and strengthens public trust in our system of justice.

John F. Terzano is President of The Justice Project, a nonpartisan organization that works to increase fairness and accuracy in the criminal justice system.
Follow John Terzano on Twitter: @TheJusticeProj

Originally posted to John Terzano The Justice Project on Thu Mar 04, 2010 at 12:47 PM PST.

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Comment Preferences

    •  Just found this John.. (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      Thank you. This is excellent as there is so much injustice.

      Are you familiar with the new Wednsday evening 6pm Central time criminal injustice series?  Last night diary was about the death penalty and can be found here

      "Comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable" - Dorothy Day

      by joedemocrat on Thu Mar 04, 2010 at 04:16:48 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  The recommendation about independence (6+ / 0-)

    from law enforcement agencies is important, but it might not go far enough.  Those doing the testing should know as little as possible about the alleged criminal situation.  they should only be given the minimum information that they will need to conduct the tests well.

    It has long been clear that our justice system suffers from a bias against the accused at the levels of prosecution and in the minds of the general public.  The constitutional protections are just statements on paper if people don't know about or understand them.  Consequently the link between primary scientific analysis of evidence and the apprehension and prosecution of suspects should be eliminated.

    I'd also like to see stiff penalties for the misuse of evidence in any way by the prosecution.

    For some this looks like being too nice to criminals.  However, when an innocent person is convicted, a criminal goes free.  When prosecutors make poor use of evidence in prosecution, they are then in fact being nice to criminals and putting the rest of us at risk.

    "Trust only those who doubt" Lu Xun

    by LookingUp on Thu Mar 04, 2010 at 01:05:33 PM PST

  •  What can be done about prosecutorial abuse? (5+ / 0-)

    I know that mistakes are made in prosecuting cases, but some convictions are really made through police and/or prosecutor misconduct. Some of the misconduct borders on criminal behavior and yet we don't seem to address these issues. Individuals are allowed to resign or may face suspensions but there is seldom, if ever, any charges brought against them.

  •  I just heard Sr. Helen Prejean speak last night (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    zzyzx, marina, joedemocrat, soothsayer99

    here in Houston at UH-downtown.  Her info. and fight against imposition of the death penalty is part of the larger fight for a genuinely just system.  The DNA testing is also a technical part of it (exonerations), but the system has other screwed-up aspects.  Victims' families get pressured into "revenge", and many want nothing to do with that for what it does to them as people.

    Read Sr. Prejean's books.  One is what the film (and soon-to-be opera, believe it or not!) "Dead Man Walking" was based on.  Good stuff.

    Torture is Wrong! We live near W so you don't have to. Send love.

    by tom 47 on Thu Mar 04, 2010 at 01:16:39 PM PST

  •  Snitches remain a major problem (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    throughout the cjs -- from Innocence Project


    In more than 15% of cases of wrongful conviction overturned by DNA testing, an informant or jailhouse snitch testified against the defendant. Often, statements from people with incentives to testify – particularly incentives that are not disclosed to the jury – are the central evidence in convicting an innocent person.

    People have been wrongfully convicted in cases in which snitches:

    --Have been paid to testify
    --Have testified in exchange for their release from prison.
    --Have testified in multiple distinct cases that they have evidence of guilt, through overhearing a confession or witnessing the crime.

    "....while there is a soul in prison, I am not free." Eugene V. Debs

    by soothsayer99 on Thu Mar 04, 2010 at 04:20:57 PM PST

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