Academic journal article Case Western Reserve Law Review

Re-Punishing the Innocent: False Confession as an Unjust Obstacle to Compensation for the Wrongfully Convicted

Academic journal article Case Western Reserve Law Review

Re-Punishing the Innocent: False Confession as an Unjust Obstacle to Compensation for the Wrongfully Convicted

Article excerpt

"Our procedure has been always haunted by the ghost of the innocent man convicted. It is an unreal dream."

--Learned Hand, 1923 *




In 2006, Douglas Warney was released from prison after serving nine years and two months for a murder he did not commit. (1) The resident of Rochester, New York, was convicted of stabbing a neighborhood acquaintance to death in 1997 and sentenced to twenty-five years to life, but he was exonerated after a DNA test of crime scene evidence implicated another man, who subsequently confessed. (2) By the time of his release, Warney had spent (3),380 days in prison for the crime.3 New York State's Unjust Conviction and Imprisonment Act, (4) in force since 1984, is designed to compensate exonerees for the time they spent wrongfully incarcerated. But when Warney filed a claim, he was denied. (5)

The statute makes an exoneree eligible for compensation only if he "did not by his own conduct cause or bring about his conviction." (6) Warney, who was mentally disabled with an IQ of sixty-eight and suffering from AIDS-related dementia, had signed a written confession that served as the centerpiece of the prosecution's case. (7) He later recanted and claimed he had been coerced by interrogators a claim bolstered by the DNA results--and his attorneys discovered factual anomalies suggesting police misconduct during his interrogation. (8) But a New York judge decided that his case met the statutory standard: Warney had caused or brought about his own conviction by confessing, and so in recompense for those 3,380 days, New York State owed him nothing. (9)

The oft-quoted principle that it is better to let guilty men go free than to punish an innocent man is axiomatic in Anglo-American criminal law and has deep roots. (10) Besides reflecting the fundamental value our legal system places on personal liberty and the high burden required to deprive someone of that liberty, the principle also embodies a basic admission--that the single most egregious error a justice system can commit is to punish the innocent.

The natural corollary to this principle is that society has a special responsibility to make efforts toward righting the wrong when it occurs. A majority of U.S. states, along with the District of Columbia and the federal government, have recognized that responsibility by passing statutes that provide compensation for exonerees after their release. Like New York's, however, many of these statutes include conditions that deny compensation to certain categories of exonerees. Such conditions are based largely on the rationale that some exonerees, despite the reversal of their convictions, in one way or another contributed to their own plight. The statute drafters deemed such contributions worthy of punishment, deciding that society does not owe the same responsibility to these exonerees that it owes to others.

Reasonable minds may differ on the propriety of ever denying compensation to someone who was incarcerated for a crime he did not commit. But all should agree that denials of compensation, if they are to occur, should be limited to exonerees whose contributory conduct was truly blameworthy--that is, outside the range of conduct society reasonably expects of defendants in the criminal justice system.

This Note argues that one type of preconviction conduct, the false confession, which has contributed to scores of demonstrably wrongful convictions in America, should never be allowed to serve as an automatic basis for the denial of exoneree compensation. In recent years, criminological and psychological research have provided a greater understanding than ever of the causes of false confessions. …

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