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Cy Vance Jr. Launches First-Ever Review Panel to Guard Against Wrongful Convictions in Manhattan

By DNAinfo Staff on March 5, 2010 9:28am  | Updated on March 5, 2010 9:27am

Cyrus Vance, Jr. at his swearing-in ceremony in January. Vance pledged to create a
Cyrus Vance, Jr. at his swearing-in ceremony in January. Vance pledged to create a "Conviction Integrity Program" during his 2009 campaign.
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DNAinfo/Shayna Jacobs

By Shayna Jacobs

DNAinfo Reporter/Producer

MANHATTAN — For the first time, the Manhattan District Attorney's office has set up a committee to review cases to protect against wrongful convictions.

Ten veteran litigators from the DA's office will be involved in the "Conviction Integrity Program" to review convictions, practices and evidence to make sure the people sent to prison actually belong there.

"The criminal justice system is subject to human error and thus can be fallible," said Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance Jr. "If we have any reason to believe that we have prosecuted or are prosecuting someone who is actually innocent, we must take prompt steps to investigate the matter and see that justice is served."

Wrongful conviction activists say innocent people often plead guilty because they have poor legal representation or due to pressure from prosecutors.

Vance's new committee would will look for warnings signs in certain cases where a defendant pleaded guilty, the DA's office said.

For example, a conviction that resulted from a single witness's identification of a suspect could trigger a review.

The Innocence Project, a nonprofit that focuses on the issue, said that 75 percent of the wrongful conviction cases they've examined were influenced by eyewitness misidentification.

Barry Scheck, co-founder of the Innocence Project and a high-powered criminal defense attorney, along with forensic scientists and legal experts will serve on an advisory board for the program, but will not assist prosecutors in case reviews.

Several wrongful convictions in Manhattan have come to light in recent months.

A man falsely convicted of raping a woman after a night of partying served four years behind bars before being exonerated in December.

William McCaffrey's accuser, Biurny Peguero, recanted her story and was sentenced to jail time last week on perjury charges.

Also, a judge dismissed the conviction of Fernando Bermudez who served 18 years in prison for a murder his lawyers and family members said for nearly two decades he didn't commit.

"The indictment is dismissed," Manhattan Supreme Court judge John Cataldo told Bermudez before a packed courtroom at the Nov. 12 hearing. "I hope for you a much better future."