Last Friday, Montgomery County DA Risa Vetri Ferman appeared as part of a panel at the annual Criminal Law Symposium in Harrisburg. The event draws over 400 lawyers practicing in criminal law for legal and policy updates in
The panel, Conviction Integrity: How Pennsylvania Stacks Up, focused on the various ways in which the Pennsylvania criminal justice system — law enforcement, prosecutors, judges, and defense lawyers — are working to ensure that innocent people do not get convicted of crimes they did not commit. Ms. Ferman focused on updating training and education for police and prosecutors, as well as encouraging law enforcement to learn about and adopt best practices that ensure we are arresting the true perpetrators of crime. Noting that ensuring conviction integrity through the appellate process is “destined to fail,” Ms. Ferman has put her office’s resources to use “doing it right at the beginning.”
Ms. Ferman’s presentation focused on the efforts she has spearheaded with the Montgomery County District Attorney’s Office since her election to the office in January, 2008. As part of her commitments, Ms. Ferman served as a member of the Pennsylvania Advisory Committee on Wrongful Convictions. She described the effort of the Committee as “important” and remarked wryly that “there were some robust conversations.” A copy of the final Committee Report released in September, 2011, can be found here, and an accompanying report from many of the Law Enforcement members can be found here.
Since the Committee completed its work, Ms. Ferman has been working to advance the ideals of ensuring integrity in our convictions and in the criminal justice process itself. Toward that end, Ms. Ferman volunteered her office to serve as a “pilot project” on recording interrogations of suspects. She has put into place procedures and protocols for detectives to follow when interrogating homicide suspects that will allow for any statements made to be videotaped. In addition, her office has reworked their protocols for early investigations of homicides to include senior members of the District Attorney’s Office who respond to homicide scenes alongside experienced homicide detectives to ensure evidence is gathered and preserved effectively. Training statewide for homicide prosecutors has improved over recent years to include focusing on investigative tactics and the special ethical obligations of prosecutors.
In the area of encouraging best practices among law enforcement, Ms. Ferman noted that all people engaged in law enforcement want to use the best techniques available so that they “do things with integrity and ethics, so that we can trust in the outcome.”
As we begin to assess how law enforcement can ensure that best practices are being followed to protect against innocent people from being arrested, the Montgomery County DA is providing a roadmap of how to get there. While we surely will have some differences in the implementation process, we applaud the District Attorney’s leadership in this critical area of criminal justice reform.