From the Mercury News:
I will always remember Bobby Herrera, the man whom I wrongfully sentenced to prison.
It was a serious case. The victim had been shot at a graduation party in San Jose. Two people identified Herrera, a 17-year-old mechanic with no criminal record, as the shooter. Herrera’s attorney told him if he went to trial, he would risk 25 years in prison. On the attorney’s advice, Herrera pleaded no contest and accepted a shorter prison sentence. As the presiding judge, I approved the plea bargain and sentenced him to five years.
I subsequently learned that Herrera’s attorney was suspended from the practice of law when he represented Herrera. With the support of the district attorney, I returned Herrera to my court, appointed the public defender to represent him and released him from custody. By then he had served 11 months in prison. His new attorney found evidence of his innocence. The charges were dismissed.
Herrera’s case is one of 873 individual exonerations profiled in the National Registry of Exonerations, a joint project unveiled in May by the University of Michigan Law School and Northwestern University School of Law. A report also documents more than 1,100 “group” exonerations from cases such as the Ramparts and the Riders scandals in Los Angeles and Oakland, in which corrupt police officers systematically framed innocent people for drug and gun crimes. More than 2,000 individuals have been proven wrongfully convicted in the United States since 1989.
This is the tip of the iceberg. The Registry lists 10 individual exonerations from Santa Clara County and none from neighboring Alameda County. It is not that wrongful convictions are more likely in Santa Clara County. Rather, it is home to the Northern California Innocence Project and the Mercury News, which undertook a sweeping investigation of wrongful convictions. Santa Clara County’s justice system, including the district attorney’s innovative Conviction Integrity Unit, is more prone to look for and correct errors.
In a perverse way, Bobby Herrera was lucky. He was wrongfully convicted in the right county. Had it been Alameda County, he is unlikely to have been cleared.
Nationwide, on average, one person is exonerated every week. But only 37 percent of exonerations are due to DNA. In murder and assault cases, the leading cause of false convictions is perjury or false accusations, frequently deliberate lies by those who might otherwise be accused. In Herrera’s case, gang members pressured a key witness to falsely identify him.
In sexual assault and robbery cases, mistaken eyewitness identifications cause 80 percent of false convictions. African-Americans and Latinos are most likely to be wrongfully convicted, usually because of unreliable cross-racial identifications. Across all types of cases, misconduct by police or prosecutors is found in 42 percent of exonerations.
Nearly four years ago, the California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice investigated wrongful convictions in California and recommended reforms to address each of these causes. Only one has been adopted.
One of the most disturbing findings was the risk of executing innocent people in California. The Registry’s documentation of hundreds of exonerations in California — and the troubling absence of exonerations in several major counties–prove the point.
To ensure that no innocent person is executed, this November, voters should pass the SAFE California Act, replacing the death penalty with life in prison without the possibility of parole. Then California must adopt the rest of the Commission’s recommendations that include reform of eyewitness procedures and recording of interrogations.
We now have more than 2,000 reasons to fix the system, and counting.
Retired Judge LaDoris H. Cordell spent nearly 19 years on Santa Clara County Superior Court and now is San Jose’s independent police auditor. She wrote this for this newspaper.