Former Attorney General to lead Justice Commission

 (Oklahoma City – Jan. 28, 2011) Former Oklahoma Attorney General Drew Edmondson has been appointed to chair the newly formed Oklahoma Justice Commission. The commission is dedicated to preventing wrongful convictions in light of a growing number of individuals across the United States who were convicted of crimes and later exonerated through DNA evidence.

Oklahoma Bar Association President Deborah Reheard of Eufaula appointed Edmondson to the post this week. She said Edmondson, now an attorney with the law firm of GableGotwals, was chosen because a person of his reputation as a fair and honest public servant is exactly what the commission was looking for.

"Drew Edmondson has dedicated his professional career to prosecution, first as a district attorney in Muskogee, and later as the state's attorney general," Reheard said. "His commitment to fairness and truth for all Oklahomans is unquestioned."

Edmondson said, "When a wrongfully convicted defendant is incarcerated, the true perpetrator remains unknown and unpunished. Erroneous convictions shake our criminal justice system to its foundation and build doubt in the minds of the people the system was created to serve and protect."

Reheard said bar leaders believe there is a need to address the causes of wrongful convictions of the innocent. The commission will also be proposing reforms to the justice system designed to increase the accuracy of convictions in Oklahoma.

"Locking up an innocent person is an injustice against that individual, but it also harms society, because the real perpetrator remains free and able to commit additional crimes," Reheard said. "It is important for both the criminal justice stakeholders and the citizens of Oklahoma to understand why these individuals were wrongfully convicted and how wrongful convictions may be avoided in the future."

Recent statistics show that 258 individuals in the United States have been exonerated through post-conviction DNA testing, and 17 of those were sentenced to death.  In Oklahoma, 10 individuals have been exonerated after they were convicted, four of them in prison for murder. The average length of time served by those later exonerated was 13 years.

DNA testing can only be used in a small number of criminal cases. Criminologists have concluded that biological evidence is not available in the vast majority of cases, consequently wrongful convictions revealed by DNA testing likely represents a small proportion of wrongful convictions overall.

Reheard said, "That is why the commission will be looking at reasons innocent people are wrongfully convicted in the first place. We hear stories about eyewitness misidentification, false confessions, government misconduct, bad forensics and bad lawyers. We will identify the causes, then develop strategies that will lessen the chances of it happening."

As attorney general, Edmondson put a DNA review system in place in which his office would not request an execution date until a case review was conducted to determine if DNA testing of evidence would be valuable or relevant as to actual innocence. As chairperson of the Oklahoma Justice Commission, Edmondson is charged with appointing the commission's members. He expects to name 18 members and begin meeting by mid-February. Commission members will serve two-year terms.

Edmondson said, "There are no easy answers, but the creation of this commission proves there are Oklahomans representing different perspectives who are willing to come together to work toward solutions."

The OBA resolution creating the commission requires at least one representative from each of the following disciplines or offices: district attorneys representing at least one urban and one rural area, defense attorney, trial court judge, appellate court judge, police officers representing urban and rural areas, sheriffs, legal scholars, legislators, the Office of the Attorney General, OSBI, victim advocates, public defenders, CLEET (Council on Law Enforcement Education and Training), an expert or liaison from the innocence community, forensic science consultant or expert, and a member of the general public. Additional members shall be appointed by the chair as necessary, and at least one of the members on the commission shall have litigation experience.

The 16,700-member Oklahoma Bar Association, headquartered in Oklahoma City, was created by the Oklahoma Supreme Court to advance the administration of justice and to foster and maintain learning, integrity, competence, public service and high standards of conduct among Oklahoma's legal community.