Expert Discusses Wrongful Convictions at Hudson Valley

Nichole Danyla

Staff Writer

Innocent people go to jail and it can happen to anyone: that was the message on Tuesday at noon in the BTC auditorium during the first lecture of this Fall’s Voices Series, titled Wrongful Convictions in a Broken Public Defense System.

The lecture was delivered by Jonathan Gradess, Executive Director of the New York State Defenders Association, and Bill Bastuk, president and founder of It Could Happen To YOU, a non-profit organization that helps the wrongly accused and convicted receive justice.

“We [as a society] present a picture that everyone who is arrested is guilty,” Gradess said.

The numbers tell a different story. From 1965 to 2014 over 200 people have been wrongfully convicted only to later be found innocent. And that statistic only covers felony convictions.

“Thousands of people are falsely convicted of misdemeanors,” said Gradess. He referenced one of the case where a man spent 17 years in prison for a crime he did not commit.

According to Gradess, there are six main reasons for wrongful convictions: perjury or false accusations, official misconduct by the police or district attorney, mistaken witness identification, inadequate public defenders, false or misleading forensic evidence, and false confessions.

It Could Happen To YOU helped pass legislation that created The Commission on Prosecutorial Conduct. They are currently lobbying for legislation that would force prosecutors to hand over all of the evidence they have to the defense without the defense having to make a motion for it in court.

The reason Bastuk founded It Could Happen To YOU was because he experienced false accusation and prosecutorial misconduct first hand. A few years ago a young woman accused him of raping her. He was innocent and there were several diary entries from the alleged victim to prove it, but the prosecutor refused to turn over the evidence. It took Bastuk’s lawyer four motions in court ordering the prosecutor to turn over the evidence and a year to prove he was innocent.

According to Bastuk, he was lucky because he could afford a lawyer. When it comes to the public defense system “our state is a patchwork mess”  according to Gradess. Each jurisdiction has its own system, sometimes the system works and other times “you could be sitting in jail for three weeks without talking to your attorney,” before arraignment.

Gradess said the biggest problem with the system is that public defenders are often overworked. “Time is one commodity a public defender in New York State doesn’t have,” he said.

Often times they only have an hour to focus on each case so they start doing triage. When they first get a case, some attorneys ask what deal the DA is willing to offer instead of actually looking to see if the DA even has a case. Then they talk their clients into accepting a plea instead of going to trial in order to free up room for the new cases that will cross their desk tomorrow.

“Police know the system is defective” Gradess said, and so do the prosecutors, who sometimes use that to their advantage.

One case he cited as an example is from several years ago. One night, two men committed a homicide. The police investigated, talking to several eyewitnesses. They found two brothers who were then tried and convicted. Later, they were proven innocent after it was found that the two murderers were white. The two brothers that had been convicted were African American. The justice system failed them miserably.

“We have injustice routinely [in New York State],” Gradess said. One way he proposed to fix this problem was to hire more public defenders who are better trained and have more time and resources at their disposal. He also told those in attendance to advocate for themselves, especially when they feel they are not being represented adequately. No one should have to suffer through a broken justice system.

 

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