Scott Fappiano spent more than 20 years in prison in New York. He was convicted of a brutal crime in 1985the rape of a woman married to a police officer in Brooklyn. His trial was not exactly open and shut. Although the victim identified Fappiano as her attacker by looking at photographs, he was, in fact, about five inches shorter than the man she had described, and he had shorter hair. Extensive blood tests failed to establish any connection between Fappiano and the crime. Nevertheless, in 1985 he was convicted of the crime and sentenced to 50 years.
He is free today because a group called the Innocence Project took up his case, demanded DNA testing and proved what Fappiano had said all along: He was innocent. The State of New York, which had custody of him for nearly half of his 44 years on earth, released him earlier this year.
What do you say when you have spent more than 20 years in prison for a crime you didn’t commit? Scott Fappiano simply said he was glad his ordeal was over and that the injustice had come to an end. His 69-year-old mother said she felt that her son had been kidnapped, but finally had returned.
In a sense, he was kidnappedan innocent person taken away against his will by an imperfect justice system, imperfect because it is administered by flawed human beings who probably get it right most of the time but clearly not all of the time.
Scott Fappiano received a long sentence for a crime he did not commit. How many prisoners in the United States today have received a far worse sentencedeathfor crimes they did not commit? At a time when Americans have embraced the death penalty with unseemly enthusiasm, this question ought to haunt prosecutors, judges and juries.
Death penalty advocates argue that the system has built-in checks and procedures that nearly eliminate the chance that an innocent person could be convicted of a capital crime and sentenced to death. But is that really the case?
In 1991 a man named Jeffrey Mark Deskovic was convicted of raping and murdering a young woman in Peekskill, N.Y. New York did not have a death-penalty statute at the time because two successive New York governors, Hugh Carey and Mario Cuomo, vetoed death-penalty legislation annually. Had they not done so, Jeffrey Mark Deskovic surely would have received a death sentence.
But he did not commit that crime. He maintained his innocence for years and asked the local prosecutor, Jeanine Pirro, to examine DNA evidence that he believed would prove his case. The prosecutor’s office declined to do so. But earlier this year, the Innocence Project took up Deskovic’s case, a new prosecutor looked at the DNA evidence; and Deskovic was cleared of the crime after spending 15 years in prison.
Without the support of the Innocence Project, Deskovic, Fappiano and other wrongly convicted people in New York and elsewhere might still be in prison. The staff and lawyers of this not-for-profit legal clinic deserve the gratitude of all who pray for justice, for the clinic’s mission is nothing less than the overturning of injustice. In the last year alone, the Innocence Project has helped free five prisoners wrongly convicted of murder in New York.
The Innocence Project relies on DNA evidence to return the unjustly convicted to freedom. Since 1989 nearly 200 people have been released, because of DNA evidence, from prison for crimes they did not commit. The Innocence Project is pushing for the routine collection of genetic material from convicted felons. That seemingly sensible proposition, however, has drawn some opposition from civil libertarians, who fear the growth of government-maintained DNA databases.
With two million people serving time in American prisons, the Innocence Project’s mission could hardly be more urgent. How many of those two million have been wrongly convicted? The number certainly is small, but the presence of even one innocent person in prison mocks the very notion of justice. Once imprisoned, as Deskovic discovered, inmates and their continued pleas of innocence generally go unheard. Judges, prosecutors and the public at large generally do not regard convicted felons as sympathetic or credible figures.
All of this, of course, takes on even greater import when the death penalty becomes part of the equation. We know, thanks to the Innocence Project, that people have been wrongly convicted of crimes. Shouldn’t that give death penalty supporters pause? Do they believe that the system is flawless, or do they believe that the occasional innocent executed in the name of justice is the tragic price we must pay for law and order?
After Deskovic was released earlier this year, Barry Scheck, a lawyer who has been one of the driving forces behind the Innocence Project, directed his remarks to death penalty supporters. This is the fifth man to be exonerated in a murder case in New York State in the past 10 months, he noted. And for all those who are thinking that it might be a good idea to reinstate capital punishment in this state, please, please, please look at the evidence in front of you.
The evidence in front of New Yorkersin front of all of uswas a live human being wrongly sent to prison for a murder he didn’t commit. He lost 15 years of his life thanks to a miscarriage of justice.
But at least he did not lose his life. Do we really wish to take that risk?