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3 wrongful conviction bills advance

Some law enforcement groups oppose the measures, which could lead to governor's veto.

June 27, 2007|Henry Weinstein | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — The Assembly Public Safety Committee cleared three bills Tuesday aimed at preventing wrongful convictions, but the governor might veto the measures because of law enforcement opposition.

All the measures stem from the recommendations of the California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice, which the state Senate created in 2004 to study problems in the criminal justice system that have put innocent people in jail.

One bill, aimed at reducing the number of false confessions, would mandate electronic recording of interrogations of suspects in homicides and violent felonies who are in police custody. Another would require corroborating evidence for the testimony of jailhouse informants, who have been shown to lie sometimes to receive reduced sentences or other benefits. A third bill calls on the California attorney general, in consultation with other key stakeholders in the criminal justice system, to develop new guidelines for lineups presented to eyewitnesses to see if they can identify suspects.

Arthur Carmona of Orange County came to Sacramento to testify on behalf of the bills. He told committee members how at age 16 he was arrested, convicted and imprisoned for committing strong-arm robberies in Orange County, based on a mistaken identification by an eyewitness. He spent 2 1/2 years in prison before errors were discovered and he was freed.

"I support the bills that you are being asked to vote on today," he told the committee members. "Prison is no place for an innocent person, let alone an innocent kid."

All three bills, which already have passed the state Senate, cleared the committee on a straight party-line vote, with four Democrats, led by committee Chairman Jose Solorio of Santa Ana, in favor, and two Republicans opposed.

The measures head to the Appropriations Committee and if successful will go to the Assembly floor.

Similar measures passed both houses last year, but were vetoed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. Since then, the legislation has been modified to address the governor's concerns, said Gerald Uelmen, a Santa Clara University law professor who is executive director of the justice reform commission.

Although several prosecutors and representatives of law enforcement agencies sit on the commission, Nick Warner, legislative director of the California State Sheriff's Assn., said the organization was opposed to all three measures, a sign that the bills could run into trouble again with the governor.

Each measure deals with a leading cause of wrongful conviction, and was formulated after public hearings and study by the commission, said its chairman, John Van de Kamp, who previously served as Los Angeles County district attorney and the state attorney general.

Van de Kamp told the committee that electronic recording of jailhouse interrogations would help defendants by ending coerced confessions, and protect police from false accusations. Uelmen emphasized that the bill contains a number of exceptions, including exigent circumstances and situations in which an officer "in good faith failed to make an electronic recording."

Nonetheless, Warner of the sheriffs' association said the recording bill was "full of loopholes for bad guys to get off."

"We disagree with putting in the statute" a provision that if an officer fails to record an interrogation, a trial judge "shall, at the request of the defendant, provide the jury with an instruction

Assemblyman Anthony Portantino (D-La Canada Flintridge) asked Van de Kamp, "Why not give the judge discretion" by using the word " 'may' rather than 'shall' " in the bill?

"We want to make it clear that the instruction should be given," Van de Kamp responded. "The bill contains a whole series of exceptions."

The hearing exposed fissures among prosecutors. For example, Jim Provenza, a special assistant to Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley, said his office favored the bill requiring corroboration for jailhouse informants. But Tom Toller of the California District Attorneys Assn. said his organization opposed the bill because it provides a broad solution "to solve a perceived problem in a very few cases."

To the surprise of Sen. Mark Ridley-Thomas (D-Los Angeles), his bill on lineup procedures drew the most opposition. Robert Fagan, a special assistant to the San Diego County sheriff, objected to a requirement that the new guidelines be sent to the Legislature. "Law enforcement should be allowed to try out new things without fear of being forced to live with them if they are not successful," Fagan said.

After the hearing, Ridley-Thomas said he feared that "ideological gridlock between law enforcement and the civil liberties" community could hurt the bill's chances. "When opponents" of the bill say wrongful convictions are infrequent, "I say tell that to the guy who spent 17 years in prison for something he didn't do," Ridley-Thomas said. "If we're not vigilant it will happen more frequently."

henry.weinstein@latimes.com

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