Ma. Experts Urge Reforms To Stop Wrongful Verdicts


Simple, inexpensive changes in the justice system could help prevent wrongful convictions, say Massachusetts experts. They spoke at a state Bar Association meeting the day after a judge threw out the 1998 conviction of Stephan Cowans, setting the Roxbury man free after 6 1/2 years in prison, says the Boston Globe.

Speakers, including two district attorneys, recommended reforms ranging from the videotaping of police interrogations to formation of a new state commission to study cases in which guilty verdicts have been overturned.

Supreme Judicial Court Justice Robert Cordy said in an interview, “It’s frightening, because it can happen, and it’s costly to everyone.”

Cowans was convicted of shooting and wounding a police officer, but recent DNA analysis found that clothing left by the gunman was worn by someone else. His conviction was the seventh to be overturned in Suffolk County since 1997.

Some speakers urged new investigation techniques; others advocated a stable budget. Middlesex District Attorney Martha Coakley said adequate funding for the court system can help reduce errors, by allowing prosecutors and defense attorneys to develop expertise.

Williams College Prof. Saul Kassin said the risk of false confessions could be minimized by videotaping interrogations. Taping would deter the use of coercive measures and would head off courtroom debate about whether defendants waived their rights, he said.

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court may hold arguments next month on whether defendants’ statements should have to be recorded to be admissible in court.

Margaret Marshall, chief justice of the Supreme Judicial Court, spoke on changes needed in the court system, including building upgrades, the expansion of online services, more equitable couthouse staffing, and systems to evaluate performance.


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