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.”

Really?

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.

 

 

 

 

Advertisements
Comments
  1. Gary Cordner says:

    Another way to couch this issue is in terms of Type 1 and Type 2 errors. Our system is designed/intended to minimize Type 1 errors (innocent person found guilty). Just about inevitably, this increases the number of Type 2 errors (guilty person goes free). As you point out (and as DA Sedita acknowledges in his op-ed), it’s supposed to be this way (founding principles). Following on this, I don’t think his argument that there are more wrongful acquittals than wrongful convictions is inaccurate — again, the system is designed to lean that way, even though it frustrates victims, police, and prosecutors. Now whether the arguments in favor of additional measures to limit Type 1 errors (wrongful convictions) are based on “obscene exaggerations” — that’s a matter of opinion, I guess.

    • This is a great point, Gary. I guess as to what you call Type 2 errors, my beef with Sedita is that he characterizes these as wrongful. If the system is built this way — that is, to accept some number of guilty persons going free as the price of doing all we can so that the innocent are not convicted — I would not characterize these as wrongful. I don’t think that, given our system, Type 1 and Type 2 errors are morally equivalent. On the “obscenely exaggerated” point, I can accept opinions, but strongly prefer those that are well informed and grounded in fact, and my take is that it’s pretty hard to look at the landscape of the last twenty years and declare that there’s exaggeration; if anything, we are probably not able to see all of the wrongful convictions.
      Thanks very much for the thoughtful comment, and sorry I couldn’t reply sooner.

  2. Chicky says:

    I read Sedita’s editorial 3 times in an effort to make sense out of his rant. In addition to the Buffalo News editorial that set him off, I can guess that it is also the result of his office losing a lot of high profile cases that they should have won recently if the DA’s office were (1) more competent, (2) less self-assured, (3) more determined, or (4) all of the above.

    He also has an ongoing lawsuit with a former Deputy DA whistleblower who was fired for pointing out that Sedita failed to prosecute a political operative in his own campaign (see http://blogs.artvoice.com/avdaily/2009/09/28/mark-sacha-on-das-failure-to-prosecute-steve-pigeon).

    One should be warned to not believe the statistics that Sedita flings out. The productivity measures of the DA’s office since he took over have been abysmal, but like your typical politician, he plays fast and loose with statistics (see http://www.http://artvoice.com/issues/v11n23/week_in_review/considered_but_rejected).

    All points posted by SHG are well made. Mr. Sedita continually lashes back at anyone who implies that he has ever done anything wrong. Despite his poor record, he will go unapposed in this year’s election, mainly because of it being a massively Democratic county, and it being a Presidential election year.

    I knew that he has a gargantuan ego, but to see that he fails, to this degree, to understand the point of view of the acquitted is very disturbing.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s