In a recent New York Times article, the chief judge of New York put it on the line:
“There could be nothing more horrible than an innocent victim being convicted of a crime while the perpetrator is free to commit more crimes,” chief judge Jonathan Lippman told the Times. He urged that legislation be enacted to remove this “stain on the justice system.”
The words, expressed in his State of the Judiciary address this week, are bound to have great influence. Lippman is a nationally known jurist deeply respected for his knowledge of the law and his battles against what he regards as injustice. He is known as a great dissenter. He has often expressed a liberal view in a court that has a 4-3 conservative majority.
Regarded as the most liberal chief judge in 25 years, he told the Times in 2010: “I am a result-oriented person and the result I’m looking for is not necessarily unanimity.”
As for his latest words calling for new safeguards against wrongful convictions, he struck a chord with an eminent legal scholar and teacher at New York University, Professor Stephen Gillers.
Gillers told me that the Innocence Project in many states had uncovered hundreds of cases of wrongful convictions. “If New York’s Chief Judge calls for major reforms, it’s not a casual thing. It could have great influence both in New York and throughout the country. The big problem is money. In a time of economic adversity, it could be difficult to find the money for meaningful changes.
“Money is needed to pay competent counsel for the accused and for crime labs and other facilities. And it’s not the only thing. People who have been incarcerated for many years need other help to re-adjust to life on the outside.”
Lippman wants interrogations videotaped to reduce coerced confessions. He favors expanding the state’s DNA database. He says: “Even one wrongfully convicted person is one too many.”
Back in 2009, the National Right to Counsel Committee filed a report based on an exhaustive investigation. The report’s title told the story: “Justice Denied: America’s Continuing Neglect of our Constitutional Right to Counsel.”
Lippman is trying to do something that has long eluded jurists and politicians: ensure a fair trial for every American, including the poorest. If he makes progress in that direction, he will deserve high praise.