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 via www.innocenceprojectpa.org.
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. ••EndFragment