Justice delayed

Tom Reilly’s initiative on wrongful convictions stalled the legislature for two years — for what?
By DAVID S. BERNSTEIN  |  February 15, 2006

Tom ReillyTwo years ago, the drumbeat of wrongful convictions in Massachusetts had grown too loud to ignore: the release of Shawn Drumgold, Stephan Cowans, and Anthony Powell led to a Boston Herald /FOX25 report on 22 prisoners statewide released in the past two decades, thanks to new evidence.

In response, Attorney General Thomas Reilly along with the state’s 11 district attorneys launched a “Justice Initiative” in early 2004. They promised a review of known erroneous convictions, followed by a report with recommendations by the end of that summer.

That deadline proved wildly optimistic. But at long last, the Phoenix has learned, the group has created a draft report, and will probably release it within the next few weeks.

The Phoenix has not seen the draft, but several people who have seen it say that the report will not include any discussion of the DAs’ reviews of past wrongful convictions. It will not point any fingers, assign any blame, or suggest any punishments. It will not require the DAs themselves to do much of anything different. Nor will it suggest any process for reviewing past convictions to find more errors; in fact, it will emphasize the relative rarity of wrongful convictions.

Its recommendations include the following:

 — Improvements in methods for obtaining eyewitness identifications;

 — Improvements in police interrogation procedures;

 — Additional funding for state forensic labs;

 — Improvements in the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner;

 — Increased budget for defense attorneys handling cases for the indigent;

 — Increased budget and salaries for prosecutors in the DAs’ offices;

 — Additional training on police investigatory procedures.

These are the same prescriptions that Reilly and the others talked about two years ago, which begs the question of why it’s taken so long to complete the report.

Geline Williams, MDAA’s executive director, blames the delay on the logistical problem of getting 12 parties, scattered across the state, to work out small wording details. The same reason was given by Reilly’s point person on the project, Kurt Schwartz, head of the AG’s criminal division. “Getting 12 different editors to agree on the wording of anything is a slow, complicated process,” he says.

But others wonder whether Reilly ever made the Justice Initiative a high priority, and by extension, whether as governor he would similarly stall rather than implement its recommendations.

In fact, several people tell the Phoenix that they suspect the entire project was intended to forestall the state legislature from acting until the topic faded from the front pages. By claiming to be aggressively pursuing statewide reform themselves, Massachusetts’s top prosecutors convinced legislators there was no need for them to act, the theory goes.

If so, it has worked. Legislative efforts for reform, including a bill to create an independent commission on wrongful convictions, have failed to move.

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  Topics: Talking Politics , Tom Reilly, Anthony Powell
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