After five people identified him in court, Fernando Bermudez was convicted in 1992 of killing a 16-year-old in New York City, says the New York Times. No other evidence tied him to the crime. Bermudez, 38, has been behind bars ever since, despite the fact that for 14 years, the five witnesses have said their testimony was false. “What does it take, with the system that we have, to reinvestigate a wrongful conviction?” said Scott Christianson, a former state criminal justice official.
The prevailing wisdom of the U.S. justice system views recantations as untrustworthy, acts of sympathy, bribery or coercion. One judge, rejecting a Bermudez's appeal in 1995, said that five recantations were simply too many to believe. In recent years, the reliability of recantations is being re-evaluated, driven in part by cases in which DNA evidence has cleared people who had been imprisoned for years. In several cases, DNA evidence has shown not only that people were innocent, but that witnesses who had recanted were telling the truth. “Blanket suspicion of recantations is clearly not warranted,” said Rob Warden of the Center on Wrongful Convictions at the Northwestern University School of Law. “We know now that many of the traditional precepts that have been held by the courts are not warranted, and yet the courts continue to cling to them.” Bermudez's hopes rest on an appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit.