By John Van de Kamp
Health care reform hasn’t made it to the Governor’s desk this year, but 3 crucial public safety bills have. Governor Schwarzenegger has the opportunity to sign landmark legislation that would help prevent wrongful convictions in California, and make this state a leader in addressing a serious nationwide problem.
How serious is the problem? When the innocent go to prison, the guilty go free. That is a very serious public safety problem. And it happens more often then most people think.
Just recently, Stephen Colbert interviewed the 200th DNA exoneree, Jerry Miller. Colbert gave him a card on behalf of “society” saying “Sorry.” Here in California, Herman Atkins spent 12 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. Here is Herman Atkins’ story:
Harold Hall spent more than 19 years in prison, and was nearly sentenced to death. Over 200 other wrongfully convicted men and women have been exonerated by DNA evidence, but all too often these errors could have been avoided. Now Governor Schwarzenegger has a chance to show Colbert and the nation what we can do: California can do more than saying
Commentators from both sides of the aisle are supporting these bills for just the same reasons: they address glaring problems that need repair, and they protect public safety. By signing these bills, Governor Schwarzenegger will help law enforcement solve and prosecute crimes, while also protecting the innocent from wrongful conviction.
The California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice, a group established by the Senate to study the most serious problems with the criminal justice system, recommended all three of the reform measures now before the Governor.
In 2006 I was asked by the Senate to Chair the Commission, no doubt because of my curriculum vitae, which included terms as California’s Attorney General, L.A. County D.A. and as California’s Central District’s first Federal Public Defender. So I have some perspective from both sides of the court room. I agreed to take on the assignment with the stipulation that I would receive support to balance the Commission so that all sides of the criminal justice systems had strong and fair representation. The result is a Commission whose members include law enforcement officers, prosecutors, defense attorneys (public and private), a victim advocate and public members.
The Commission has issued a series of reports dealing with Eyewitness Identification, False Confessions, Jail House Informants Testimony, DNA Evidence Processing, and Forensic Evidence. Now we’re looking at Prosecutorial and Defense Misconduct and Incompetence.
The Legislature has passed three bills dealing with the Commission’s early
recommendations: SB 511, 609 and 756 represent the most basic and most urgently needed changes.
Some states and jurisdictions already have similar laws in response to the notorious Duke Lacrosse scandal, North Carolina’s Governor (and former Attorney General) Easley signed bills similar to SB 511 and 756. However, Governor Schwarzenegger would be the first to enact all 3 reforms at once.
He chose to veto bills similar to SB 511 and 756 last year, but made it clear in his veto message that he appreciates the need for reform. Now that the bills have been rewritten to address last year’s concerns, there is no reason to put public safety and the lives of innocent men and women on hold. This is Governor Schwarzenegger’s chance to sign landmark legislation this year, to protect the public, protect the innocent and be the reformer California, and the country, needs.
John Van de Kamp is the chair of the California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice and formerly served as California Attorney General, Los Angeles District Attorney, and as the first Federal Public Defender for the Central District.