Oklahoma Justice Commission issues final report, adjourns

(Oklahoma City, March 1, 2013)  After a two-year review of the justice system in Oklahoma that included everything from DNA and false confessions to eyewitness identification and the use of informants, the Oklahoma Justice Commission (OJC) today released its final report and recommendations.

The commission was established by the Oklahoma Bar Association in September 2010 to “enhance the reliability and accuracy” of convictions in Oklahoma. Led by former Oklahoma Attorney General Drew Edmondson, the group included law enforcement officers, defense attorneys, prosecutors, members of the judiciary and victim advocates.

Joining Edmondson for a state Capitol press conference releasing the final report were commissioners Prof. Lawrence K. Hellman of the Oklahoma City University Innocence Project, Jim Stuart (president of the Oklahoma Bar Association), Republican state Rep. Lee Denney of Cushing, Democratic state Sen. Connie Johnson of Oklahoma City, Captain Tim Dorsey of the Edmond Police Department, and Carri Bullard. 

“For two years, this diverse group of individuals dedicated themselves to the study and betterment of our justice system,” Edmondson said. “I am proud of their service, and, if enacted, I believe the recommendations issued today will ensure that justice is more efficiently and accurately rendered.”

According to the report, members of the commission first reviewed cases where wrongful convictions occurred. Based on that initial study, the commission identified five broad areas of inquiry for further review including false confessions; eyewitness identifications; forensic evidence, including DNA; general criminal procedure, including the use of informants; and victim and family rights.

“We were surprised to find that 27 percent of the 301 wrongful convictions we studied involved false confessions that were made by suspects during investigation of the crimes,” Edmondson said. “Those were the kinds of things we’ve attempted to redress – instances where a common factor existed and practical ways to prevent future error.”

The commission’s final report includes the recommendation that future confessions be videotaped as the technology and circumstances allow.

“This practice protects law enforcement by preventing allegations of coercion and preserving the subtle details of a suspect’s behavior for investigative and prosecutorial purposes,” Edmondson said. “The commission recognizes this practice may not always be feasible, but we believe it should be standard practice when possible.”

The commission also recommended new procedures for police line-ups and photo identification.  The report expresses support for the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in its efforts to regain national accreditation, obtain new facilities and secure additional pathologists in order to reach that standard.

“The commission reviewed instances where DNA evidence proved faulty and found that of the cases studied, only one instance occurred in an accredited laboratory,” Edmondson said. “This clear correlation underscores the importance of the work done by the medical examiner’s office, and it is in the public’s interest that they be given the resources and facilities they need to conduct their work.”

The commission also noted that Oklahoma is currently the only state in the U.S. that does not have a post-conviction DNA testing law and proposed legislation to allow access to DNA in cases where additional testing could establish innocence.

Legislation to remedy that fact has been proposed this year by Rep. Denney, a member of the justice commission.

“When a person’s life and liberty are at stake, we have a duty to be as thorough and exacting as possible to ensure that we are not sending an innocent person to prison,” Denney said. “Currently, Oklahoma is the only state in the union that does not have a post-conviction DNA testing process in place. This legislation creates that process, and it enhances the credibility of our justice system.”

“The members of the justice commission recognize that the incarceration of an innocent person is an injustice, not only to the wrongfully convicted, but to society as a whole as they real perpetrator remains at large,” Edmondson said. “The recommendations made in this report were based on thoughtful research and discussion. I am grateful to my fellow committee members and their undertaking of such a serious task, and I appreciate the Oklahoma Bar Association’s work in facilitating the study of these issues.”

The commission dedicated the report and its recommendations to the late Professor J. William Conger, a member of the commission who died Jan. 1.

Editor’s note: For a copy of the full report, visit okbar.org and find the link, presently on the home page.