New York’s chief judge urged lawmakers Tuesday to require DNA testing for every felony and criminal misdemeanor conviction and to give defendants who plead guilty to serious felonies greater access to genetic evidence from crime scenes.
Currently, the state limits DNA testing to certain felony and misdemeanor convictions and a person who pleads guilty isn’t entitled to DNA testing if the test results are not part of the prosecution evidence.
But in his annual address on the state of the judiciary, Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman said experience has shown wrongful convictions even in cases where a defendant pleaded guilty. He outlined and endorsed legislative proposals meant to address the potential for wrongful convictions, recommendations that came from a task force including defense attorneys, judges, prosecutors, police, academics and others.
“It’s a stain on the justice system,” Lippman said later of any conviction of someone who didn’t commit the crime. “Our recommendations have no agenda politically.”
Gov. Andrew Cuomo is pushing to expand the state DNA databank beyond samples from those convicted of penal felonies and 36 misdemeanors. The state Senate has passed similar legislation. An Assembly bill would expand DNA testing and also add measures like those Lippman proposed in order to give defense lawyers more tools to prove their clients’ innocence.
Lippman endorsed related measures to mandate videotaping of police interrogations when a suspect is in custody and being questioned about a specific felony. Another would allow double-blind photo identifications into trial evidence, where neither a witness nor administrator knows who the suspect is or even if the suspect’s photo is in the array. New York is among the few states that prohibit admitting witnesses’ identification of suspect photographs into evidence.
“We leave it to the political players, the policy-making branch of government, to figure this out,” Lippman said.
His proposals will be forwarded to the Legislature in the next week or two and should prompt debate, he said.
Assemblyman Joseph Lentol, a Brooklyn Democrat, said afterward that Lippman’s proposals sounded good, but he questioned whether the Senate would go along with them. Republican Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos said they will review the proposals.
The chief judge also renewed his call to have 16- and 17-year-olds accused of nonviolent crimes kept out of adult criminal court, saying the current approach was established as a temporary measure 50 years ago. New York is one of only two states that prosecute this age group as adults, which “flies in the face of what science tells us about adolescent development,” the judge said.
Lippman proposed establishing a new Youth Court, where the teens could get diversion to programs, similar to Family Court dispositions. The teens would be designated delinquents instead of criminals, but would still have the rights of adult court to bail and a speedy trial.
“This approach puts first and foremost an emphasis on rehabilitation for adolescents, rather than incarceration,” Lippman said. “The present punitive system turns children into hardened criminals and must be changed.”
The change will require legislation, though administratively the courts recently established a pilot program with adolescent diversion courts in New York City, Buffalo, Syracuse, and Westchester and Nassau counties.
Facing an ongoing home foreclosure crisis, Lippman said the New York City Bar Association is fostering a partnership between mortgage banks and legal services organizations representing homeowners to work out loan modifications to keep people in their homes.
Courts in the city are establishing regular settlement conferences dedicated to a specific bank’s cases, starting in a few months. So far, Bank of America, Chase, Wells Fargo and Citibank have agreed to participate, officials said.
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.