The legal community in New York state is extraordinarily diverse, but regardless of practice setting or area of expertise, our profession is characterized by a shared commitment to promoting reform in the law and facilitating the administration of justice. Those values are also central to our mission at the New York State Bar Association.
Most attorneys would agree that the conviction of any individual for a crime he or she did not commit is a grave offense against the integrity of our justice system. Preventing such wrongful convictions has long been a priority for the State Bar, and it is one that we will continue to advance vigorously during this year's legislative session.
Last year, we urged lawmakers to pass a series of measures including expanding the DNA database, videotaping interrogations, improving police lineups, requiring prosecutors to turn over more exculpatory evidence, and allowing defendants to obtain DNA evidence even after a guilty plea. We commended the governor and legislature for their passage of legislation expanding the DNA database and providing criminal defendants greater access to DNA evidence, but we remain committed to achieving comprehensive reforms with additional protections.
In order to draw attention to this important issue, we participated in two press conferences last spring, joining with wrongfully convicted individuals, as well as Assemblymember Joseph Lentol, Senator Ruth Hassell-Thompson and Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld of The Innocence Project. We heard powerful and tragic stories from victims who spent yearssometimes decadesin prison after being convicted for crimes they did not commit. While they were wrongfully imprisoned, the real perpetrators were free and all too often committed additional offenses.
In November, the State Bar included the prevention of wrongful convictions on our slate of top legislative priorities for 2013. One measure that would prevent wrongful convictions is mandatory videotaping of custodial interrogations. Videotaping interrogations would help secure the conviction of guilty individuals while preventing the wrongful conviction of the innocent. Opponents of mandatory recording contend that voluntary participation by law enforcement would be sufficient to prevent wrongful convictions, but unfortunately, voluntary use of videotaped interrogations is inconsistent throughout the state and is not currently utilized in many counties.
The New York State Bar Association has advocated for mandatory recording of interrogations since 2004, and we have sponsored and monitored successful pilot programs in a number of counties. Mandatory videotaping is a key component of the wrongful conviction package we have been advancing in recent years, and we were pleased that the Assembly passed a bill last year that would require videotaping interrogations. New York City Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly's recent decision to voluntarily record interrogations for some serious crimes, and Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg's pledge to support it with public money, represent significant progress. After their announcement, in a Letter to the Editor published in the New York Times, we once again called on the governor and the legislature to mandate the practice by law.
Committed to Justice
Every wrongful conviction is a fundamental failure of our justice system, and every time an innocent person is convicted of a crime he or she did not commit, the real perpetrator is free to commit more crimes. We will continue our commitment to preventing wrongful convictions, and we hope that 2013 will bring meaningful and comprehensive measures to protect the innocent, enhance public safety and uphold the integrity of our justice system.
Seymour W. James Jr., President of the New York State Bar Association, is the Attorney-in-Charge of the criminal practice of The Legal Aid Society in New York City.