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The least they can do

The district attorneys of Massachusetts, joined by Attorney General Thomas Reilly, launched a "Justice Initiative" this week, to ensure, in the words of Suffolk County DA Dan Conley, "that the innocent are protected and the guilty are punished."

Undoubtedly we will soon see major airlines announce a "Flying Initiative" and the Red Sox kick off a "Baseball Initiative." What we apparently will not see is an investigation into old convictions that should be reopened, or anything remotely like what was recently called for in these pages: "a statewide innocence commission, with power to subpoena witnesses, probe cases, determine the causes of wrongful convictions, assign blame and responsibility, and recommend meaningful reforms, including procedures for holding police and prosecutors responsible for knowing misconduct." (See "Freedom Watch," News and Features, April 9.)

The Justice Initiative is the DAs’ explicit response to the spate of wrongful convictions recently revealed in Suffolk County and throughout the state. But rather than open old cases, the state’s top prosecutors want to "identify the factors that have contributed to erroneous convictions" and make recommendations on "how to prevent these types of injustices in the future," according to a press release.

The DAs responded similarly when the following "factors" came to light, one by one: the Medical Examiner’s Office has been described by New York’s top ME as "dysfunctional"; detectives made secret deals with witnesses; a fingerprint turned out not to belong to the person the police said it did; detectives used discredited eyewitness-identification procedures. Apparently, the DAs want to be admired for rooting out the truth in individual cases once an injustice has been demonstrated, but do not want to accept a role in determining what other cases went awry.

"I really believe there are scores of innocent people convicted years ago," says Michael Doolin, a Boston attorney who recently served on an eyewitness-identification task force for Conley and the Boston Police Department. "There should be some sort of commission that would look at some of those old cases."

Still, the Justice Initiative is a good beginning, especially given the difficulty of getting agreement among 11 elected DAs, many with quite different philosophies. "I think it’s a positive thing that the DAs are looking to create some initiative," Doolin says. But even so, most of the Justice Initiative’s recommendations fall conspicuously into the laps of other people, not the DAs. They want police departments to improve eyewitness-identification and other investigatory procedures. They want Governor Mitt Romney’s administration to create an undersecretary for forensic sciences. They want the state legislature to increase crime-lab funding, create a compensation program for the exonerated, and boost prosecutors’ salaries.

These are all good ideas; someone should inform the chiefs of police, the governor’s office, and the legislature, none of whom were represented at Tuesday’s press conference announcing the initiative. Furthermore, since Reilly and Conley say the group agreed on this initiative in February, why did they announce it three months later, immediately after the state legislature concluded its public work on the next state budget?

Perhaps the clearest indication of how hard it was for the DAs to reach consensus was that they didn’t include recommendations for holding police accountable for any illegal misdeeds — even though Conley and Reilly are doing just that. Conley’s office is currently prosecuting a Boston police officer for allegedly lying to get a drug conviction. Reilly has a grand jury looking into BPD officers’ mishandling of the case against Stephan Cowans, whose conviction was overturned in January. If only their fellows could be induced to follow in their footsteps.

Issue Date: May 12 - June 3, 2004
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