Commission working to stop false convictions
Filed by Ben Allen in Feature.
January 22, 2013
A couple of years ago, the Oklahoma Legislature asked the Bar Association to look for ways to prevent wrongful conviction in Oklahoma’s Criminal Justice System. They formed the Justice Commission. A group of public leaders chosen to take apart the system they work in. But, how much power does the commission have to change policy and how will they know if they’re making a difference? KOSU’s Quinton Chandler has more on the Justice Commission….
“It’s important for the rule of law for people of all stages in life to have trust and confidence in our criminal justice system and that it is designed to apprehend violators and bring them to justice.”
That’s Professor Lawrence Hellman, former dean of OCU and Justice Commission member. The Commission says, 10 people have been released from Oklahoma prisons for crimes they didn’t commit.
“Those people spent an average of 12 years in prison before it was determined that they were innocent and once you have a case it takes 5-7 years to go through the judicial procedures.”
The Commission wants to put a stop to that but it has no official power to change or improve procedures in the legal arena. So they’ve developed a unique strategy. What’s that? Well meet Former Attorney General Drew Edmondson, Commission Chairman.
“We spent the first year studying the cases and we spent the last year taking what we’ve learned and drafting recommendations.” “The recommendations will go to the legislature, the judiciary, to law enforcement agencies. Wherever change can be effective we will send the recommendations to the people who are in charge.”
This is the beginning of the Commission’s 3rd year in session. In February, they’ll finish a report detailing a list of those recommendations.
There’s a chance advice from an outside source won’t get a lot of attention from prosecutors or police officials but, Edmondson is confident people will take notice. Partly because some of the same people running the offices he’s trying to persuade have a seat on the Commission.
“We’ve got David Prater District Attorney, Dennis Smith is a DA from western Oklahoma, Mac Martin is a defense attorney, Bob Ravitz public defender Dwight Adams is a forensic specialist.”
“The Oklahoma City Police Chief, and we have a rural sheriff’s representative and we have trial judges and appellate judges.”
“This is not coming just from academia, just from the defense bar. This is coming from people who truly want to improve the criminal justice system and especially those who are involved in it on the side of law enforcement.”
The group is recommending mostly procedural changes. A couple of ideas for cops… mostly simple stuff like record suspect interrogations. But there are also more subtle changes like leaving handcuffs off suspects to keep from prejudicing eyewitnesses. The commission also has advice for how courts should instruct juries and they’re making suggestions for legislative changes. Oklahoma City Police Chief Bill Citty likes the Commission’s recommendations for law enforcement, but he says we’ll never have perfection.
“Even with new procedures in place there’s still going to be a small number of individuals where mistakes may have been made. Because you’re still relying on human beings carrying out the interrogations, carrying out the interviews, carrying out the lineup.”
Still the chief says the changes are well thought out and can only benefit his force.
“Every officer has to be aware of what the best practices are and what can we do to make sure that we are effectively and honestly prosecuting the right people. I think that’s what the committee has tried to look at.”
The word of a police chief from one of the largest districts in the state carries a lot of weight. The same can be said of a former attorney general but at the end of the day, they’re still opinions.
“We won’t know for probably a couple of decades whether the frequency of wrongful convictions has been reduced it’s almost like proving a negative.”
And, if you listen to the former Attorney General. It sounds like it’s a waiting game.
“If down the road someone is convicted who was in fact innocent. Then we would want to look at that case and see if the recommendations of the Commission were followed or if this is a classic example of why they need to be followed.”
The Commission will meet for the last time next month. They’ll finalize their report and the group will adjourn. Then they’ll have to wait and see if anyone listens to their advice.