Pittsburgh Post-Gazette/Ipso Facto
September 30, 2011
Last week the long awaited Report of the Advisory Committee on Wrongful Convictions was issued by the Joint State Government Commission. The very first page of the report contains a telling caveat, “The release of this report should not be interpreted as an endorsement by members of the Executive Committee of the… [Report’s] conclusions.”
The caveat was an understatement. The law enforcement and victim representation members of the Commission issued their own Independent Report included in the advisory committtee's overall document starting at Page 309.
The Advisory Committee Report and the Independent Report both agree that the primary purpose of the committee was to review cases in which an innocent person was wrongfully convicted and subsequently exonerated and offer recommendations to reduce the possibility of future wrongful convictions.
That appears to be one of the last points of agreement between the competing reports. Initially the two groups disagreed as to the definition of “wrongfully convicted.” The Committee suggested, in a footnote, the official acts which could result in exoneration: “pardons based on innocence, judicial dismissals of criminal charges after evidence of innocence emerged and acquittals on retrial based upon evidence of no involvement in the crimes.”
The Independent Report took issue with that definition, arguing that the U.S. Supreme Court held that an acquittal “does not prove that the defendant is innocent.” The Independent Report succinctly pointed out that the burden of proof in criminal cases requires proving guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. The Supreme Court has made it clear that a jury must acquit “someone who is probably guilty but whose guilt has not been established beyond a reasonable doubt.”
The fundamental disagreement between the two reports -- did the Committee review only innocent persons wrongfully convicted. The Committee Report suggested that 11 people in Pennsylvania have been exonerated “partly or totally on the basis of DNA.” The Independent Report acknowledged that in one of the 11 cases cited by the Committee, “it is clear that and individual was wrongfully convicted.” However, considerable space in the Independent Report is dedicated to arguing that the remaining 10 individuals are not factually innocent.
Why is the definition of “wrongfully convicted” so important to the authors of the Independent Report? The Independent Report suggested, “The mis-definition of 'innocent' persons to include scores of guilty defendants means that the 'reforms' based on the mis-definition are likely to reward the guilty and make their convictions less likely in the future.” The Committee Report contended, “These exonerations challenge long-accepted assumptions in the soundness of certain practices of the criminal justice system.” The Committee Chairman, Duquesne University law professor John Rago, said "Mistakes happen—the question becomes how do we respond to our mistakes.”
Over the next couple of weeks The Cautionary Instruction will examine the recommendations put forth in the Advisory Committee Report and the Independent Report.
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