Group has an innocent mission, aiding wrongly convicted inmates


Po­lice gen­er­ally spend most of their time try­ing to put crim­in­als in jail.

But on one re­cent af­ter­noon, mem­bers of the North­east’s 7th Po­lice Dis­trict and the ci­vil­ian ad­vis­ory board that sup­ports them hos­ted rep­res­ent­at­ives of a non-profit or­gan­iz­a­tion com­mit­ted to free­ing cer­tain con­victs from pris­on.

Marissa Bluestine and Shaina Tyler of the Pennsylvania In­no­cence Pro­ject de­livered the mes­sage that not all con­victs are really guilty of the crimes pinned on them by the state’s in­ex­act and some­times sub­ject­ive court sys­tem.

Bluestine, the non-profit’s leg­al dir­ect­or, and Tyler, its staff in­vest­ig­at­or, at­ten­ded the monthly meet­ing of the 7th Po­lice Dis­trict Ad­vis­ory Coun­cil on Jan. 19.

“We identi­fy people who were con­victed of crimes that they nev­er did com­mit,” Bluestine said.

It hap­pens more than one might think.

Since 1989, 289 of the na­tion’s con­victs have been ex­on­er­ated through the emer­gence of new DNA evid­ence, ac­cord­ing to Bluestine. In most cases, the wrongly con­victed in­mates spent at least 10 years be­hind bars. Some served 30 years or more.

Sev­en­teen ex­on­er­ated con­victs served time on death row.

Of the 289 cases of ex­on­er­a­tion, Pennsylvania has had at least 11 in the last dec­ade.

While bad con­vic­tions are tra­gic for the af­fected pris­on­ers and their loved ones, they also im­pact so­ci­ety as a whole.

“We have to un­der­stand the pub­lic safety im­pact,” Bluestine said. “How many people get away with a crime be­cause some­body else was (wrongly) con­victed?”

The real crooks of­ten use their un­deserved free­dom to con­tin­ue com­mit­ting crimes and vic­tim­iz­ing oth­er in­no­cent people. Among those 289 re­versed cases, DNA evid­ence has al­lowed au­thor­it­ies to identi­fy the ac­tu­al per­pet­rat­ors 94 times. And among those 94 new sus­pects, more than 40 had com­mit­ted ad­di­tion­al of­fenses, in­clud­ing rapes and murders, in the in­ter­im.

The Pennsylvania In­no­cence Pro­ject has four full-time staff mem­bers and is based at Temple Uni­versity, al­though all of its fund­ing comes from private donors. In­form­a­tion is avail­able via­no­c­ence­pro­

Cur­rently, it’s work­ing on 12 “act­ive” cases, in­clud­ing “four or five” with newly de­veloped DNA evid­ence and in which form­al ap­peals are im­min­ent, Bluestine said. An­oth­er 29 cases are un­der re­view by area law stu­dents for pos­sible ac­cept­ance by the pro­ject.

The pro­ject is very par­tic­u­lar about the cases it ac­cepts and has a multi-tiered re­view pro­cess.

“We’re only look­ing for (con­victs) who were not there (at the scene) and did not com­mit the crime,” Bluestine said. “It’s not about look­ing for the tech­nic­al er­rors.”

Also, the pro­ject avoids cases in which con­victs “have a sig­ni­fic­ant pri­or crim­in­al re­cord,” the leg­al dir­ect­or ad­ded.

For­tu­nately for many wrongly con­victed, as well as the wrongly sus­pec­ted, DNA tech­no­logy has ad­vanced to the level that it’s read­ily avail­able to most law en­force­ment agen­cies in a timely fash­ion. Most of the cases handled by the In­no­cence Pro­ject pre-date mod­ern DNA ana­lys­is.

But oth­er prob­lems im­pede the justice sys­tem, too.

Vic­tims and wit­nesses of­ten misid­enti­fy per­pet­rat­ors, in­ten­tion­ally or not, when ques­tioned by crime in­vest­ig­at­ors.

“It can hap­pen in many cases with one wit­ness or with many wit­nesses in one case,” Bluestine said.

And, as il­lo­gic­al as it may seem, many sus­pects provide false con­fes­sions that lead to their con­vic­tions. False con­fes­sions im­pacted 25 per­cent of con­vic­tions later re­versed by DNA evid­ence, ac­cord­ing to the leg­al dir­ect­or.

Those areas are among sev­er­al is­sues ad­dressed in two pieces of state le­gis­la­tion pending in the Pennsylvania Sen­ate’s Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee, Bluestine said.

Oth­er is­sues ad­dressed by Sen­ate Bills 1337 and 1338 in­clude com­pens­a­tion for the wrongly con­victed, along with the pro­cessing and pre­ser­va­tion of DNA evid­ence.

“We’re work­ing in the policy area to re­move er­ror and im­prove re­li­ab­il­ity,” Bluestine said.

• On the 7th dis­trict crime front, Capt. Joseph Zaffino re­por­ted that burg­lar­ies con­tin­ue to plague the dis­trict, like the city as a whole.

The 7th had 75 more burg­lar­ies in 2011 than it did in 2010, rep­res­ent­ing a 36 per­cent in­crease. Des­pite that, the 7th re­mained among the most crime-free dis­tricts in the city.

Po­lice have ar­res­ted sev­er­al re­peat of­fend­ers re­cently, which they hope will make a dent in the burg­lary prob­lem, Zaffino said. And they’ve been work­ing with pro­sec­utors from the dis­trict at­tor­ney’s North­east unit to seek high­er bails and longer jail sen­tences for those re­peat of­fend­ers.

But po­lice and pro­sec­utors need help from the watch­ful pub­lic.

“You need to get in­volved, folks. We can’t do it alone,” Zaffino said. “If you see something that doesn’t look right, call 911.”

Of­ficers re­main on the lookout for a sus­pec­ted burg­lar pos­ing as a util­ity work­er. He is sought in con­nec­tion with at least two break-ins in the Bustleton Av­en­ue and Bowl­er Street vi­cin­ity. He wore an or­ange hel­met and or­ange vest and drove an un­marked van.

Un­der Pennsylvania law, le­git­im­ate util­ity and con­struc­tion com­pan­ies must post their names on the doors or sides of their vehicles. So an un­marked van or truck should be a red flag to watch­ful neigh­bors, Zaffino said. ••


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