Wrongful Convictions Worry Cops

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As the problem of wrongful convictions has been dissected over many years, defense lawyers, law professors and a few prosecutors have taken the lead in proposing reforms.

Now police chiefs are jumping in, focusing on their specialty: the front end of the justice system.

Today, the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) is gathering about 70 experts from various disciplines involved in the legal system at a "summit" in Alexandria, Va., a Washington, D.C. suburb, to seek new solutions.

The session was set up at the urging of current IACP President Walter McNeil, police chief of Quincy, FL. Writing in the organization's magazine, McNeil said that, "While a very small percentage of all convictions are in fact wrongful, the damage to those wrongly accused, convicted, and incarcerated is irreversible."

He added: "The damage goes beyond the wrongfully convicted citizen; it hurts all those involved in the case, including law enforcement and prosecutorial staff, families of the wrongfully accused, the victim of the original crime in question, and the public at large when justice is not carried out and the true guilty individual is not arrested and punished."

The event, which is not open to the public, includes four working groups, titled "Making Rightful Arrests," "Correcting a Wrongful Arrest," "Technology and Forensic Issues" and "Reexamination of Closed Cases."

The one-day session, which is supported by three federal agencies--the National Institute of Justice, the Bureau of Justice Assistance, and the Office for Victims of Crime, will publish a set of recommendations later.

In remarks prepared for delivery, Acting Assistant U.S. Attorney General Mary Lou Leary said, "A disproportionate share of the blame for wrongful convictions is laid at the feet of law enforcement. That's unfortunate, and it's unfair." Leary said the Bureau of Justice Assistance's Wrongful Convictions Review Grant Program has awarded more than $9.4 million to 34 organizations to support representation of defendants with credible post-conviction claims of innocence.

Speakers scheduled to appear at an opening panel discussion, moderated by Bureau of Justice Assistance Director Denise O'Donnell, are Ilse Knecht of the National Center for Victims of Crime; Police Chief Mike Corley of Brownwood, TX; Kristine Hamann, Executive Assistant District Attorney in the New York City Office of the Special Narcotics Prosecutor; Judge Russell Canan of the Washington, D.C., Superior Court's Criminal Division; and Barry Scheck, Co-Director of The Innocence Project.

The speaker at a lunch for the event is Jennifer Thompson-Cannino, who was raped at knifepoint by a man who broke into her apartment while she slept.

She identified Ronald Cotton as the attacker. Although he denied the crime, her identification helped convict him.

Eleven years later, a DNA test proved Cotton's innocence.

He later co-authored a book with Thompson-Cannino about the case, "Picking Cotton."

EDITOR'S NOTE: For another take on the issue of wrongful convictions, see TCR's July 6,2012 story "270 Years In Prison" by Texas Tribune reporter (and 2012 HF Guggenheim Fellow) Brandi Grissom HERE.

Ted Gest is president of Criminal Justice Journalists. He welcomes comments from readers.

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