A couple of weeks ago, the Philadelphia Inquirer had a front-page story highlighting Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams’ efforts to ensure that police gather sufficient evidence to support a conviction for those arrested of serious crimes in Philadelphia. While the article focused on the impact the policy is having on the street, and with changes in the Philadelphia Police Department, an aspect overlooked but important to remember is that ensuring sufficient evidence to support an arrest and conviction means that fewer truly innocent people will be improperly convicted. Conviction integrity as the office has been pursuing is about more than just numbers: it is about making sure that the person arrested is the person who committed the crime.
We know of too many people convicted based on woefully incompetent or inadequate evidence: a single, shaky, eyewitness identification; a single witness with incentive to lie who testifies against the defendant; faulty and improper forensic testimony, or a demonstrably false confession bearing no relation to the physical evidence. Working harder to gather evidence before an arrest translates to fewer people being improperly convicted of crimes they did not commit. Pennsylvania has seen 27 documented cases where innocent people were wrongly convicted, according to the National Registry of Exonerations. With efforts such as Mr. Williams’ developing across the country, we hope to see a reduction of these grave injustices which no-one (except the perpetrator who gets away) wants to see continue.
While we support these efforts, we have to also acknowledge that changes to how arrests are supported is an implicit acknowledgement that the District Attorney’s Office, and the Philadelphia Police Department, have made mistakes in the past. Innocent Philadelphians have been convicted of crimes they did not commit. The Pennsylvania Innocence Project currently represents 8 men from Philadelphia whom we believe to be fully innocent of their crimes. Many of those are profiled on our website. What we hope for is an explicit acknowledgement of these tragic cases, and an effort from the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office akin to those undertaken in New York City, Dallas County, Texas, and Cook County, Illinois, where elected District and State Attorneys Offices are proactively engaged in re-investigating cases of questionable convictions.
Cook County State Attorney Anita Alvarez, for example, personally announced the withdrawal of all charges against Alprentiss Nash last week when DNA evidence pointed to another culprit, and it became clear that the 17 year-old conviction was not sound. While Ms. Alvarez did not go so far to declare Mr. Nash “innocent,” she did agree that the conviction could not stand: ”The main thing is that when there is question, and it’s brought to our attention, and we’re being proactive and looking at it, and not just dismissing it,” said Alvarez. “And I think that’s what we’re most proud of, is that we’re going to look at these as they come in.”
We look forward to continue working with all prosecutors’ offices in the Commonwealth as we begin to re-define our criminal justice system to account for wrongful convictions. Preventing them is a crucial first step — by improving investigations, running eyewitness identification procedures in keeping with best-evidence practices, and recording interrogations of suspects. But more is needed; with only underfunded innocence efforts like ours looking for and trying to bring justice to these cases we all acknowledge exist, justice will never truly be served.