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Legal experts discuss wrongful convictions

Peter Neufeld, co-founder and co-director of The Innocence Project, speaks during the 2012 New York State Wrongful Convictions Conference held at RIT on Friday. Adrian Kraus

The only person who benefits when someone is wrongfully convicted of a crime is the real perpetrator.

Now that the Innocence Project has helped exonerate wrongfully convicted people, Peter Neufeld, its co-founder and co-director, said it is also working to identify what led to their wrongful convictions and possible remedies to prevent innocent people from being wrongfully convicted in the future.

Neufeld on Friday opened the Rochester Institute of Technology’s daylong 2012 New York State Wrongful Convictions Conference.

The Innocence Project is a New York City-based national litigation and public organization dedicated to exonerating wrongfully convicted individuals through DNA testing and reforming the criminal justice system to prevent future injustice.

Neufeld was introduced by LaVerne McQuiller Williams, associate professor and head of RIT’s criminal justice department.

She said people — some even sentenced to death — have been claiming their innocence for centuries, but now DNA testing is available to prove their claims.

Williams said an entire community is at risk whenever an innocent person is convicted because the actual perpetrator can continue committing crimes.

She cited the cases of Frank Sterling and Douglas Warney, Monroe County men who were exonerated, saying the real perpetrators went on to kill other people after Sterling and Warney were convicted of crimes they had not committed.

In the audience was local defense attorney Donald M. Thompson (Easton Thompson Kasperek Shiffrin) who worked to free Sterling and Warney. Also in attendance was Monroe County District Attorney Sandra Doorley.

Neufeld opened with the story of Roy Brown, a Cayuga County man who spent 15 years in prison for the murder of Sabina Kulakowski, a social worker whose ex-boyfriend was the brother of the real killer.

Kulakowski had supervised people who had contact with Brown, who was convicted of her murder in 1992, based on the testimony of a forensic dentist who connected teeth marks on Kulakowski’s body to Brown.

Monroe County District Attorney Sandra Doorley was among those in attendance to hear Peter Neufeld, co-founder and co-director of The Innocence Project, speak at the 2012 New York State Wrongful Convictions Conference held at RIT on Friday. Adrian Kraus

Brown obtained investigation documents under the Freedom of Information Law and was convinced the real killer was Barry Bench, a local who man who police disregarded as a suspect.

By then any biological evidence, such as DNA, had been destroyed, so Brown wrote to Bench saying one day he would get DNA evidence that would prove Bench was the killer and suggested he confess. Not long after that, Bench committed suicide by throwing himself in front of a train, Neufeld said.

When the Innocence Project took up Brown’s case in 2005, its attorneys were able to match rips in Kulakowski’s nightgown to the bite marks and produce a pattern that showed it could not be Brown, but that was not enough to convince a judge.

Brown was exonerated when the Innocence Project proved the dental patterns of Bench’s daughter were a match to half of the teeth marks. That, saliva and bone fragments from Bench’s exhumed body finally proved Brown’s innocence and he walked out of prison 15 years later, one of 289 people the project has exonerated.

Neufeld said it was later found out that the district attorney had talked to the same forensic dentist that said Brown’s teeth were not a match to the bite marks on Kulakowski’s body, but asked that he not write a report.

Neufeld said the project realized pretty quickly that 289 wrongful convictions were probably just the tip of the iceberg and that exonerating people was not enough, especially considering only a small percentage of cases involve biological evidence.

He said they needed to know what went wrong and if there were any scientific remedies. They wanted to know if there were problems in prosecuting, defending and adjudicating people. Neufeld said public safety issues were another important reason, because the real perpetrator was still out there. In 48 percent of the cases, they were able to identify the real perpetrator.

Among the causes for wrongful convictions, Neufeld said, are wrongful eyewitness identifications, misuse of biological evidence, false confessions and failure by prosecutors — sometimes intentionally — to disclose exculpatory material.

Neufeld said the Innocent Project started at Benjamin N. Cardozo Law School at Yeshiva University, but has grown into a civil rights movement in the last 10 years with a national network of 56 projects. He said more recently, it has become a human rights movement with 10 projects in other countries.

The project is promoting mandatory video recording of confessions, which Neufeld said 18 states have. New York is not one of them, although he said Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has indicated support.

Neufeld said there is initially some resistance, but that police and prosecutors get on board once it is in place. He said if a witness denies saying something, a prosecutor can play it back.

The Innocence Project would also like to see improvements in the nation’s forensic system.

Other speakers included Steven Barnes, an Oneida County man who spent more than 19 years in prison for the conviction of three murders he did not commit, and Jennifer Dysart, association professor of psychology at John Jay College, who talked about eyewitnesses wrongfully identifying people. Also:

• Saul Kassin, distinguished professor of psychology, John Jay College, the causes and consequences of false confessions and needed reforms;

• Karen Newirth, eyewitness identification litigation fellow, Innocence Project, ensuring that reliability remains the linchpin for admissibility of eyewitness identification evidence;

• Bennett Gershman, law professor, Pace School of Law, prosecutorial misconduct and wrongful convictions;

• Court of Appeals Judge Eugene Pigott, wrongful convictions and the role of courts.