Editorials

Legislature, Supreme Court must address flaws that lead to wrongful convictions

We applaud the Kentucky Innocence Project and all those who helped exonerate Kerry Porter after almost 15 years in prison for a murder he did not commit.

But justice still has not been served.

The legislature and state Supreme Court must fix flaws in the system that led to Porter's and other wrongful convictions. Otherwise, more such errors and injustices will be inevitable.

This should be an urgent concern, not just for public defenders, but for all of law enforcement because convicting the wrong person lets the real criminal off the hook.

As is true of most wrongful convictions, a faulty eyewitness identification was at the heart of the case against Porter. This is not surprising as a growing body of science reveals the unreliability of eyewitness IDs.

Police agencies should adopt model procedures for eyewitness identifications. Unless these procedures are scrupulously followed, the Supreme Court should exclude the use of eyewitness identifications by prosecutors.

Critical to Porter's exoneration was DNA testing of a homemade silencer that was used on the murder weapon.

In this one respect, Porter was lucky. Kentucky law guarantees post-conviction DNA testing only to inmates facing a death sentence. A Louisville judge authorized it for Porter. But a Northern Kentucky judge denied DNA testing to another Innocence Project client, William Virgil, who is serving 70 years for a murder he says he did not commit. The Supreme Court last week refused to expedite his appeal. He will have to wait years on the Court of Appeals, unless the legislature or Supreme Court expands the right to DNA testing, as all but two states, Kentucky and Alabama, already have done.

There also should be a requirement to preserve evidence.

Finally, Kentucky owes Porter nothing for the 14 years it took from him, and that is wrong. Many states have provisions for compensating those who have been wrongly convicted and imprisoned. Kentucky should too.

Porter, who had been sentenced to 60 years and would not have been eligible for release until 2040, was the 11th person exonerated or given a new trial through the Kentucky Innocence Project. He is the 21st exonerated this year in the United States, according to the Innocence Network, a coalition that works to redress wrongful convictions.

Besides the Innocence Project, Porter owes his freedom to several others, including Louisville Metro Police Sgt. Denny Butler, who heads the cold-case unit and re-investigated the crime. The victim's twin brother also insisted that Porter was innocent and that someone else, who is in prison for manslaughter and had a stronger motive and more opportunity, was the real murderer.

Louisville journalist Andrew Wolfson of The Courier-Journal discovered and reported evidence pointing to Porter's innocence while researching another case. Police and prosecutors had failed for 18 months to disclose the exculpatory evidence to Porter's defense team — another flaw in the system that should be fixed through stronger disclosure rules.

Commonwealth's Attorney Dave Stengel, who filed the motion to free Porter, pointed out that Porter, who had been a petty thief and crack user, destroyed his own credibility by making up an alibi that was easily disproved. That also should serve as a caution to anyone tempted to play with the truth.

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