Congress Conducts Hearings on the Innocence Protection Act

On September 22, the House Subcommittee on Terrorism, Crime and Homeland Security of the Judiciary Committee held hearings on the re-authorization of the Innocence Protection Act. Among those making presentations were noted defense attorneys Stephen Bright (pictured), President of the Southern Center for Human Rights in Atlanta, and Barry Scheck, Co-Director of the Innocence Project in New York. Mr. Bright emphasized that the best way to prevent wrongful convictions is to provide defendants with adequate representation: “The best protection against conviction of the innocent is competent representation for those accused of crimes and a properly working adversary system. Unfortunately, a very substantial number of jurisdictions throughout the country do not have either one.” He noted that DNA testing is no substitute for good lawyers, especially since such evidence is not available in most cases: “Some people believe that we can rely on DNA testing to protect the innocent, but DNA testing reveals only a few wrongful convictions. In most cases, there is no biological evidence that can be tested. In those cases, we must rely on a properly working adversary system to bring out all the facts and help the courts find the truth.”

He also cited the disparities between resources available to the prosecution and that available to the defense:

[T]here is no working adversary system in much of this country,
particularly in the jurisdictions that condemn the most people to death. The
disparities between the prosecution and the defense are so immense in some places
that the prosecution’s case is not subject to adversarial testing. Some lawyers
assigned to defend people accused of crimes are completely unqualified to do so
because they are unaware of the governing law. Some lawyers work under such
crushing workloads that no matter how conscientious and dedicated, they are unable
to give their clients the individual attention they require. There is little or no
investigation and presentation of evidence on behalf of the accused. This
significantly increases the risk of wrongful convictions.

Among the recommendations offered to the committee by Mr. Bright, particularly about capital cases, were the following:

If we are going to have an adversary system, there must be an independent
defense component that has structure and the resources necessary to provide
competent representation. Public defender offices need to be organized along the
same lines that prosecutors offices are organized – with full-time staffs, specialization
in complex cases and appeals, reasonable workloads, and independence so their
loyalty is to their clients not to judges, bureaucrats or some other public official.

In states that continue to impose the death penalty with frequency, there must
be capital defender programs – programs, like those in Colorado and Connecticut,
staffed by full-time lawyers who specialize in capital litigation who employ
experienced investigators and mitigation specialists qualified to work on capital
cases. Those states do not have capital trials that are travesties of justice. They have
minimized the risk of executing innocent people by providing good representation
which helps restrict the imposition of the death penalty to the most aggravating cases
with the clearest proof.

(Testimony of Stephen Bright, House Subcommittee on Terrorism, Crime and Homeland Security of the Judiciary Committee, hearings on the re-authorization of the Innocence Protection Act, Sept. 22, 2009). See Representation.