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Our duty to free the wrongly convicted

BOSTON POLICE Commissioner Kathleen O'Toole and I recently announced that a man was erroneously convicted of rape in 1991 and wrongfully imprisoned. New evidence conclusively established that he did not commit the crime and should be freed. This was the fourth instance in the last two years in Suffolk County in which individuals were freed from prison because new evidence demonstrated that they were either factually innocent of the crimes for which they had been convicted or because we believed they did not receive a fair trial.

 

As district attorney, I believe that the act of freeing one innocent person wrongly imprisoned is profoundly more important than all the criminals we arrest, prosecute, and convict. On behalf of the criminal justice system, I have expressed sorrow and regret at what these individuals have lost, but this is not enough. So the Suffolk County prosecutors and I rededicate ourselves to upholding the highest standards of professionalism and integrity to ensure as best we can that the mistakes that happened in the past are not repeated.

There is nothing more critical to the public trust and the integrity of the criminal justice system than our ability to objectively and openly weigh information that speaks to a person's guilt or innocence. We have no more important responsibility than to follow the facts and law wherever they lead, regardless of popular passions or political consequence.

The job of police and prosecutors is not merely to make arrests or seek convictions, nor is it to preserve an indictment or a conviction at all costs. Rather, our job -- at all stages of the process, from investigation to arrest to indictment to trial to appeal and to the review of new information that surfaces after a conviction -- is to seek the truth.

When we determine that justice has not been served by an indictment or a conviction, we have an obligation -- legal, moral, and ethical -- to act decisively to correct the injustice. This is a sacred trust that this office has embraced.

Even in the best system mistakes can happen. While I am satisfied that we have policies and practices that ensure that my office responds affirmatively and appropriately to any potential miscarriage of justice, my obligations go beyond even this.

That is why, together with Commissioner O'Toole, we have created a working group of police, prosecutors, and defense attorneys to recommend new practices and tighter controls in the investigation and prosecution of cases, particularly as they relate to eyewitness identification procedures.

The Suffolk County District Attorney's Office and the Boston Police Department already have policies designed to reduce mistakes. We conduct DNA testing on biological matter at the beginning of a case. The Boston Police Crime Laboratory has a DNA section that is accredited and renowned for its accuracy and scientific excellence. My office does not oppose requests for relevant postconviction DNA testing, and we have a DNA Working Group to review cases and case law where DNA is at issue.

Our investigations into possible wrongful convictions have gone beyond any steps requested by defense counsel. Not once have we stood on the sidelines. In every case, police and prosecutors have made significant contributions in establishing the evidence that freed the defendant. We have used the grand jury to investigate alleged wrongful convictions as well as teams of our most exerienced prosecutors, police detectives, and the resources of the Crime Lab. In all these cases we have acted decisively and professionally in discovering and disclosing potentially exculpatory evidence.

The recommendations of our working group will take these and other efforts to the next level, ensuring that from beginning to end, our pursuit of justice is transparent, objective, and resolute. These efforts to constantly improve prolice and prosecutorial practices will further strengthen public trust and confidence in the criminal justice system.

Daniel F. Conley is district attorney of Suffolk County.

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