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Innocence Without Delay 

Innocent people shouldn't be sent to prison, and innocent people wrongfully imprisoned shouldn't be kept there. Everyone should agree on this much.

Yet, due largely to advances in DNA testing of biological evidence, we are frequently reminded nowadays that our criminal justice system is far from perfect. Innocent people are convicted and sentenced. Each day, it seems, brings another potential exoneration of someone currently serving prison time. These are likely a small portion of all wrongful convictions, because biological evidence is available in only 20 percent of cases.

When evidence points to innocence, therefore, we must ensure swift access to justice.

Most inmates do not receive a hearing as quickly as Ryan Matthews, who has always maintained his innocence in the April 1997 murder of a Bridge City grocer ("What Really Happened Here?" May 13). In some ways, the Matthews case provides a textbook example of how the justice system can respond swiftly and efficiently to claims of innocence. On April 21, Matthews' attorneys filed new DNA evidence as part of a motion for relief from the Louisiana Supreme Court. The High Court sent a letter to Jefferson Parish District Attorney Paul Connick requiring a response by May 5. Connick complied and on May 5 concurred with the motion for the hearing. Thus, within 14 days of filing his motion, Matthews received Connick's response. Official Supreme Court approval is pending.

Ryan Matthews is still on death row, but his evidence will now be heard in court. This is a step in the right direction. Ultimately, the hearing could lead to a new trial or even a decision by the district attorney not to re-indict him, which would lead to Matthews' release.

Of course, a hearing does a defendant little good without competent, aggressive representation. Cases such as Matthews' require adequate resources. Unfortunately, many cases wind up before appellate courts because of inadequate or ineffective assistance from defense counsel at trial. Legislative committees in Baton Rouge and Washington, D.C., have begun to address some of the other causes of wrongful convictions, such as faulty eyewitness accounts, limited access to DNA testing, false confessions and prosecutorial misconduct. At this crucial juncture, one state law deserves a close look. Currently, after a conviction is final, Louisiana sets a time limit of two years for the introduction of new evidence of innocence. Nine other states set no such limits. Strong evidence of innocence should have no expiration date. Louisiana therefore should also repeal this time limit.

No matter what the time frame, when strong new evidence is unearthed, a new hearing should be granted -- and soon. Some cases written about in these pages are still waiting for action. Gregory Bright and his co-defendant, Earl Truvia ("When Seeing Is Not Believing," June 4, 2002), were granted new trials in February and October 2002, respectively, after hearings revealed deception by the only eyewitness. The prosecutor's office asked the state Supreme Court to overturn the rulings for new trials; those 2002 filings were the last actions seen on this case. Bright and Truvia are still serving time at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, where they've been for 27 years.

In the 1996 case of Daniel Bright (no relation to Gregory Bright), the head juror, Kathleen Hawk Norman, has been outspoken in her criticism of Bright's trial. Her jury gave Bright the death penalty; she now says they might not have convicted him at all if they had been given the proper evidence ("Name Dropping," March 4).

In each of these cases, Orleans Parish District Attorney Eddie Jordan could play a major role. He could cut a deal to let all of these people free. Or he could consent to a new trial in each case. Oddly, Jordan hasn't acted at all, despite his very public accusations that former DA Harry Connick's office routinely withheld crucial evidence. (Connick denies this allegation.) Jordan has, laudably, put into place new oversight procedures that he says will avoid this problem in the future. But if there were indeed past problems, Jordan should act swiftly to serve the interests of justice. After all, it's now his watch.

To be fair to Jordan, his counterparts in other parishes face similar dilemmas. Many are likewise dragging their feet. But no matter what their parish of origin, delays of any sort harm not only the defendant, but also the victims and their families, who must cope once again with the facts involving the murder of a loved one.

In states such as Illinois, officials began to act once wrongful conviction lawsuits started routinely crossing their desks. In recent years, DNA testing has proved wrongful convictions at a pace that no one could have foreseen just a decade ago. Now more than ever, our courts must be open to new evidence -- including fingerprints, DNA and the recanting of eyewitness statements.

The Ryan Matthews case was a good start. The state's criminal justice system should now use it as a model for giving wrongful conviction cases the priority and resources they deserve. If the past few years are any guide, there will be many more to come.

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