Here’s a new take on wrongful convictions. According to Frank Sedita III, the District Attorney of Erie County (Buffalo), NY, “their rate of occurrence has been obscenely exaggerated.” The real problem, Sedita says, is wrongful acquittals.
Sedita apparently took exception to an editorial in the Buffalo News on August 15, highlighting a considerable number of recent wrongful convictions in New York State. The paper chastised the state legislature for failing to make basic changes in eyewitness identification procedure and and for failing to require the recording of suspect interrogations.
This was apparently too much for Sedita, who had his own say in an August 26 op-ed. In his office, he says, he has many layers of review to assure that no innocent defendant ever faces punishment. And he calls the “obscenely exaggerated” problem of wrongful convictions a “deliberate deception heaped upon an unsuspecting public.”
Let’s review. According to the Innocence Project, there have been 297 people have been exonerated nationwide, as of today. The National Registry of Exonerations, which uses broader criteria, puts the number at 945. For the sake of argument, let’s stay with the lower, more conservative number, which counts only DNA-based exonerations. The fact is that testable DNA is available in only five to ten percent of all cases. This means that the 297 cases over the last two decades represents only the tip of the proverbial iceberg. There are undoubtedly many times more cases of wrongful convictions, but no DNA evidence to test in those crimes.
What about “wrongful acquittals” which Sedita says far outpace wrongful convictions? Sedita uses “wrongful acquittals” to mean one of two things: 1) cases in which defendants were acquitted, “despite overwhelming evidence” of guilt; or 2) dismissals following indictment, “because of technical procedural issues or because the court suppresses key prosecution evidence at the request of the defense.” But wait: if there was “overwhelming evidence,” why did the judge or jury acquit? Perhaps not everyone viewed the evidence the way Sedita did. And those “technical procedural issues” or the suppression of key prosecution evidence: we also call those things rulings based on the U.S. Constitution and on state and federal law, made by our elected representatives. In other words these wrongful acquittals are not actually wrongful at all. It is the way our constitutional legal system is supposed to function.