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Convicting the innocent

The Buffalo News today begins an editorial page series on wrongful conviction. It's a problem that was once easy to ignore, because most Americans could be comfortably unaware of it.

You can find the Sunday Viewpoints cover story on this issue here. The first in the series of editorials is "Spare the innocent," followed during the week by "Tape police interrogations," "Make lineups better," "Expand DNA database" and a concluding twinned editorial, "Create a commission . . . and give it key tasks" that summarizes steps that need to be taken.

Since the advent and refinement of DNA testing, though, it has been more difficult not to notice that the criminal justice system contains flaws at critical junctures, most of which occur "upstream" of the courtroom, as Peter Neufeld of The Innocence Project observed. That's when witnesses view lineups,
police interrogate suspects and evidence is tested.

With the help of DNA, some 216 people across the country, including 23 in New York, have been exonerated of the crimes for which they were convicted. It's not that they were freed because of a technicality; they were actually innocent.

And if that is not tragedy enough, their convictions meant that the actual criminals remained at liberty … not only going unpunished for previous offenses, but free to commit more, and worse crimes.

That has happened at least once in Erie County. Anthony Capozzi of Buffalo was convicted of rapes actually committed by Altemio Sanchez. While Capozzi withered away in prison, Sanchez continued raping women here and murdered at least three of them. Capozzi was exonerated after serving almost 22 years in prison.

New York has done less than most states to fix the problems that can lead to wrongful conviction. But the problems exist, as a report on a wrongful conviction in Westchester County makes plain. And solutions exist, as well.

The state needs to attend to this problem, as both an urgent matter of justice and a matter of public safety.

Kevin Walter
Deputy Editorial Page Editor

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