December 14, 2009 / 9:08 PM / 8 years ago

In New York state, a new look at the wrongly convicted

NEW YORK (Reuters) - A recent spate of exonerations in New York state has put renewed focus on the plight of the wrongly convicted, with advocates saying it is not as easy as it should be to get an unjust verdict reversed.

In the last two decades, 246 people have been exonerated in the United States with the help of DNA evidence after being convicted of crimes.

But advocates say the system still lags for a far larger pool of people -- who are part of the 90 percent of criminal cases where no DNA evidence exists, but where compelling evidence might surface, such as questions about the reliability of a witness.

Last week, a 32-year-old carpenter who was convicted of rape became the fourth New York man in six months to have his conviction overturned after flaws in the evidence against them were uncovered.

The man, William McCaffrey, had served almost three years of a 20-year prison sentence until his accuser came forward and said she made the story up and lied in court.

"McCaffrey's case shows that people can get on the witness stand and ... evidence that is convincing to a jury is not true," said his lawyer, Glenn Garber.

According to the Innocence Project, which helps exonerate wrongly convicted people through DNA testing, the 246 convicts who have been freed with the help of DNA testing nationwide served an average of 13 years behind bars.

Although such exonerations have given hope to innocent convicts, most cases lack DNA evidence, and advocates for those believed to be wrongly convicted say their clients often wait years before they can bring crucial evidence to a court.

"The finality of the conviction is a paramount concern of the criminal justice system at the cost of justice," said Garber, who created the Exoneration Initiative a year ago to provide free legal assistance to the wrongfully convicted in New York state.

Garber's is the one of the only programs in the country to take on exclusively non-DNA innocence cases.

"The tides are turning to put the focus back on substance, rather than on procedure," Garber said. "Courts are looking at the substance of innocence claims without DNA -- finally."

In the state of New York, the law limits post-conviction review of guilt to constitutional claims and cases where new evidence has emerged. Individuals with strong claims of innocence that fall outside these boundaries are often denied a court hearing, experts say.

"It's hard to prove a negative ... particularly when the same system has found guilt beyond a reasonable doubt on its first go-around," said Stephen Saloom, policy director at the Innocence Project.

The New York state legislature is considering a bill that would remove administrative hurdles to having a court hear an appeal on the grounds of "actual innocence" -- cases where a convict claims conclusive proof he or she did not commit the crime.

The bill would codify a remedy that courts have put in place in some form in at least eight states, including New York.

"There are a lot of procedural obstacles to individuals who want to get into court and demonstrate that they're innocent," said the bill's sponsor, state Senator Eric Schneiderman.

The bill specifically considers those cases where there is no DNA evidence but where there is a strong evidence suggesting the individual was wrongly convicted.

Some prosecutors have given a chilly reception to the New York bill and similar efforts in other states.

But prisoner advocates point to the recent exoneration cases as a startling indication of the flaws in the system.

In October, Dewey Bozella, 50, was released after 26 years in prison in New York state for a murder conviction after prosecutors conceded their case against him had fallen apart.

Bozella always maintained his innocence and was denied early release on four occasions because he refused to admit to the crime.

Upon his release from a Poughkeepsie, New York, courthouse, he told a crowd of reporters: "I could never admit to something I didn't do."

Editing by Daniel Trotta and Frances Kerry

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