By Emily Tadlock
Massachusetts has made several reforms to policies affecting wrongful convictions, but many judicial advocates say even the Bay State needs to look at other ways of preventing wrongful convictions.
“I find the problem of wrongful convictions to be almost worse in Massachusetts,” said Stephanie Hartung, a law professor at Suffolk University and a board member for the New England Innocence Project (NEIP). “I think there is an attitude here that we are a liberal progressive state and yes that’s true to a certain degree, but I think the dark side to that presumption is that many believe almost arrogantly that we don’t make those kinds of mistakes, the wrongful conviction kinds of mistakes. They do.”
Massachusetts was the 49th state to pass a DNA access law. This law allows inmates the ability to test DNA post-conviction to prove their innocence. The law was enacted on May 17, 2012, several years after other states had already decided to do so.
One of the leading causes of wrongful convictions is eyewitness misidentification. Massachusetts has passed a new law for better jury instructions regarding eyewitness ID.
The old form of the law didn’t give the jury factors to consider when listening and evaluating an eyewitness identification. The new jury instructions tell a juror to take into account the following five factors that could lead to a misidentification:
- Human memory does not function like a video recording, but is a complex process that consists of the stages of acquisition, retention, and retrieval
- An eyewitness’s expressed level of certainty, by itself, may not indicate the accuracy of his or her identification
- High stress can reduce an eyewitness’s ability to make an accurate identification
- A witness’s recollection of the memory and the identification can be influenced by unrelated information that is received both before or after making that identification
- A prior viewing of a suspect at an identification procedure may reduce the reliability of a subsequent identification procedure with the same suspect.
A bill is currently pending in the House recommending certain procedures be followed by police departments on how to conduct eyewitness ID’s.
Carl Williams of the American Civil Liberties Union said this is a great bill, but it has to be passed to be followed. “This is a bill that is needed in order to sort out serious issues with eyewitness identification. And while I am proud of Massachusetts lawmakers for creating the bill, we have to urge the other lawmakers to pass it.”
“This new law allows us here at the Committee for Public Counsel Services (CPCS) to put together eyewitness experts to testify that the eyewitness ID is wrong or biased in some way,” said Yolanda Acevedo, lead attorney for the Roxbury CPCS. “The jury will now understand via these instructions that the eyewitness may not be correct and it is our job as the defense to give them expert testimony as to why this person is wrong about the identification of the defendant.”
Massachusetts has also passed a compensation law called the Massachusetts Erroneous Convictions Law that would allow victims of wrongful convictions to collect up to $500,000. However, there are many stipulations to this law.
The law may only be used by those who were exonerated and maintained their innocence or their guilty plea was pardoned by the court. It also states that every person who is eligible to pursue compensation must do so within two years of either a pardon from the governor or the grant of judicial relief (in other words, a trial or appellate court order reversing the conviction) or is forever barred from consideration by the courts of Massachusetts.
For people like Ronjon Cameron who was found innocent in a trial by the Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) but has not been exonerated has no legal right to the compensation money. “I am entitled to that measly half a million dollars to help my family,” said Cameron. “I mean half a million dollars doesn’t even begin to cover my years in prison, but it would still help my family because right now I have nothing.”
Coerced confession is another leading cause of wrongful convictions. There is a recommendation for recorded police interrogations in a case called Commonwealth vs. Valerio Digiambattista. While police departments in Massachusetts are all complying with this recommendation there is no actual law in place demanding them to do so.
The bill, H3449 proposed by State Rep. David Rogers of Middlesex requiring recordings of police interrogations, has come before the state House and the Senate and been shot down. NEIP’s Hartung believes this is because people know the recommendation is in place and feel no need to create a law.
“We’ve put a foot in the right direction as far as requiring these recorded interrogations, however I’d like to see it go a step further and become a requirement,” said Hartung.
While Massachusetts is taking steps in creating a more fair and objective criminal justice system, Hartung added the state still has plenty of room for improvement.
“There are still loads of things the state and police departments can do to help prevent wrongful convictions. I’d like to see Massachusetts more at the forefront of this fight for innocence. That’s why we at the NEIP are trying help by making suggestions and working with lawmakers to make our system better,” said Hartung.