Criminal justice reform discussed at capitol

There’s a headline that will make some heads turn. Today the PA Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing on S1069, a bill introduced by committee chair Senator Stewart J. Greenleaf (R-Montgomery) that would establish the Innocence Commission of Pennsylvania. This commission would be tasked with investigating why innocent people are convicted of crimes in Pennsylvania and would be made up of prosecutors, judges, defense attorneys, police, corrections officials, victims advocates, academics, and reps from criminal justice organizations.

It’s a bold step by Greenleaf, a former prosecutor, and it is a bi-partisan effort with five Republicans and seven Democrats as co-sponsors.

Witnesses today included three exonerated Pennsylvanians- Nicholas Yarris of Philadelphia, who spent more than 20 years on Pennsylvania’s death row and was nearly ready to accept execution until DNA evidence cleared him; Thomas Doswell of Pittsburgh, who spent 19 years in prison for a rape before DNA evidence cleared him, thanks, in part, to a DNA bill Greenleaf helped pass in 2002; and Vincent Moto of Philadelphia, who was wrongly imprisoned on a rape charge for more than 10 years and whose story is featured in the movie After Innocence, as is Yarris.

The witnesses, who also included representatives from the Innocence Project, Duquesne School of Law, Justice & Mercy, and United Methodist Witness, highlighted several issues that lead to wrongful convictions, including mistaken eyewitness identification, false confessions, and inadequate representation for the poor.

“That is one of the worst problems, inaccurate or coerced identification,” Yarris said.

Stephen Saloom, Policy Director of the Innocence Project, noted that a majority of the nation’s 174 DNA exonerations have included mistaken eyewitness identification.

“Mistaken eyewitness identifications contributed to 75% of the underlying wrongful convictions proven by DNA evidence,” Saloom said. “In many cases, there were multiple mistaken eyewitness identifications of an innocent person as the true perpetrator.”

Saloom and Duquesne Professor John Rago both stated that, as written, this commission could be “a model” for the rest of the country.

“The innocence commission crafted by this bill could be one of the nation’s best,” Saloom said.

Andy in H-burg