False convictions of innocent people, and breakdowns in our criminal justice system, happen all too often. The city of Camden this year agreed to pay millions of dollars to 88 people wrongfully incarcerated for a combined 109 years due to police officers — some of whom are now sentenced to prison themselves — planting evidence and filing false reports. In New York, the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office is reportedly looking at some 50 murder convictions from the 1980s and 1990s, after The New York Times revealed troubling patterns in the files of a now-retired detective. Historically, there have been just over 300 exonerations, probably only a fraction of the wrongful convictions.
New Jersey has taken significant steps to avoid false convictions. Interrogations of persons charged with certain enumerated serious offenses when in places of detention must now be recorded. A 2012 Supreme Court committee report on out-of-court identification procedures for law enforcement led to revised model jury charges and a new rule requiring a contemporaneous record of identification procedures and, if feasible, electronic recordation.
State and federal law enforcement and prosecutors in New Jersey as a whole do wonderful work. Elimination of the imperfections in our criminal justice system is our shared goal and continued self-scrutiny is essential to its achievement. It is time for all of us to care.