MuskogeePhoenix.com, Muskogee, OK

Oklahoma News

March 1, 2013

State justice panel unveils recommendations

— OKLAHOMA CITY — The Oklahoma Innocence Project ranks the state among the top 10 for wrongful convictions, which a report issued Friday said could be lowered by law enforcement officers, attorneys and judges.

The Oklahoma Justice Commission, formed by the Oklahoma Bar Association, unveiled its recommendations following a two-year study into convictions of people for crimes they didn't commit. The 33-member group's suggestions follow each step of the wrongful conviction process, from arrest to release.

"It's not an indictment against law enforcement," Oklahoma Police Chief and commission member Bill Citty said at a press conference. "It's just that you always want to try to do things better."

The Oklahoma Innocence Project said more than a dozen people were exonerated last year in the state for crimes they didn't commit, several after a decade or more of prison time.

According to the commission's report, almost one-third of nationwide wrongful convictions in the past two decades involved false confessions, which can be given under pressure from investigators or out of fear or exhaustion. One of the report's major recommendations is to videotape interrogations and confessions to allow investigators, juries and judges to see for themselves.

"It's something that's done a lot here already, but it's not done by every law enforcement agency," Citty said. "It adds a lot of credibility to investigations and some accountability when it goes to court."

The report recommends adjusting photo and physical line-ups to prevent witnesses from thinking investigators want them to pick a particular person. It also calls on the state to adequately fund training for all criminal justice professionals and post-release services for those wrongfully convicted.

The commission also suggested allowing DNA evidence to be available for investigations even after someone's conviction so that an innocent person can push for a retrial. According to the report, Oklahoma is the only state that doesn't allow post-conviction DNA testing.

"There's going to be a pathway for these inmates that are incarcerated — or even someone that may have passed on, a family member that wants to clear someone's name when they're actually innocent of a crime — to have access to this new technology," said commission member Rep. Lee Denney, R-Cushing. Her bill to allow the testing has passed the House and is under consideration by the state Senate.

Drew Edmondson, a former Oklahoma attorney general and the commission's chairman, said many of the recommendations could be voluntarily adopted by police departments and courts without legislation. Still, he added the report also recommends some legislative force behind the changes.

A common theme throughout the report is what law enforcement stands to gain from its recommendations, saying investigators and the broader public could be more confident in investigations.

"If the wrong guy is in prison, that means the guy that really did it is out on the streets," Edmondson said. "And nobody feels more strongly about that than the people who wear badges and enforce the law."

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