Everton Wagstaffe served more than 22 years for the murder of a Brooklyn teen. He was freed from prison in 2015 after DNA evidence proved he was misidentified by a police informant.
DNA evidence that might have proved Alan Newton’s innocence in a rape case was reported lost in the Bronx in 1994. The sample turned up 12 years later in a Queens warehouse and helped verify his story 22 years after he was incarcerated.
Raymond Santana confessed to assault and rape in the infamous 1989 Central Park jogger case, but when the confession was later proven to have been coerced by Manhattan detectives, he and four other men, having already spent five years in prison, were released.
These people are among the more than 350 the Innocence Project, a legal defense organization based at Cardozo School of Law in Manhattan, has helped free from prison, using forensic evidence and detective work. Rebecca Brown, policy director at the Innocence Project, will discuss their work — and challenges — on Dec. 23 during a Saturday morning service at Bnai
Keshet’s Kaplan Minyan, the Reconstructionist synagogue she attended in her youth.
Brown, who was raised in Montclair, works in collaboration with more than 60 groups across the nation to seek criminal procedure reforms at state and federal levels. Their mission is to level the evidentiary playing fields in cases where police and prosecutors may err, sometimes inadvertently, sometimes not, in their efforts to prove a suspect’s guilt.
“We all should be seeking the truth,” Brown told NJJN. “It shouldn’t be one side versus another side. It is a human system and mistakes are going to happen. We need to put reforms in place so that these mistakes don’t occur.”
What began in 1992 as a two-man operation, consisting of prominent lawyers Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld, now has a staff of 80. Some of the cases are high-profile, but most are not. They’re stories about people who have spent years, even decades, behind bars for crimes they did not commit, and the organization that seeks to exonerate them.
Many prosecutors have “great reluctance to reverse convictions and acknowledge when errors or out-and-out misconduct takes place,” Brown said. “We often have to engage in protracted litigation, if only to get a simple DNA test performed.”
She qualified this, noting that prosecutors in some jurisdictions go to great efforts to ensure that defendants are given a fair shake. For example, Brown said, the Brooklyn district attorney’s office has instituted a conviction integrity unit that has exonerated 23 defendants in the last three years.
In addition, she called New Jersey “a leader in wrongful conviction reform” for appointing a special expert to screen for unreliable evidence, and because of a state law which requires judges to present “carefully crafted” instructions to juries for testing the reliability of eyewitness testimony in criminal trials.
That said, Gov. Chris Christie has made one area of injustice more difficult to correct, according to Brown. In 2013, he vetoed a law that would have compensated men and women who were wrongly incarcerated, because it would have included individuals who had pleaded guilty to avoid a trial or receive a lesser sentence but were ultimately proven to be innocent. “Providing payment for ‘wrongful imprisonment’ is not justified” for those who have pleaded guilty, he wrote in a statement explaining his opposition.
Brown said the Innocence Project is determined to reverse the governor’s veto.
“Sometimes it is a rational choice for a not guilty person to plead guilty,” she said, suggesting that a defendant may wish to lighten a prison sentence through plea bargaining. “It is a massive problem made more massive by the volume of our massive criminal justice system.”
In the 1970s there were 200,000-300,00 people in prison; according to the Sentencing Project, a research and advocacy center working to reduce the numbers of people behind bars, today that figure is up to 2.3 million.
“That’s an explosion,” she said. “As a result, mistakes are more likely to happen. It is a really a system that is out of control.”
There ought to be more rigorous procedures for challenging the eyewitness identification of suspects, Brown said. One concern is that when officers or prosecutors who conduct lineups know which individual the police believe committed the crime in question, they could influence would-be witnesses. Just 22 out of 50 states, she said, “have a crucial requirement that a person who administers a police lineup should not know which participant is the actual suspect.”
Another complaint is that very few jurisdictions regulate the use of criminal informants, which is problematic, she said, because they might have incentives to lie about a suspect’s guilt, such as their own bargains for leniency with prosecutors.
Brown’s concerns about the criminal justice system began when she was working toward a master’s degree in in urban planning at New York University, focusing on issues of poverty. After graduation, she got a job investigating police misconduct at New York City’s Civilian Complaint Review Board, which she told NJJN was “a real eye-opener.” She joined the Innocence Project in 2005.
Her work in the real world of crime and punishment has made her highly skeptical of the ways such issues are presented in televised police dramas, such as “CSI” and “Law and Order: Special Victims Unit.” Attractive actors and razzle-dazzle technology “give the public the impression that many of the forensic disciplines we rely on are foolproof and no errors happen,” she said. Equally troubling to her is how television creates the perception that police agencies use technology “that makes a perfect match of crime scene evidence to an individual suspect. We know that’s not true.”
Brown said when programs feature wrongful convictions, they help educate the public, but “many shows really provide misinformation. We know that a lot of their information is just false. Nobody picks up fiber from a carpet and IDs it in seconds. It is just not reality.”