Steven Barnes

State Legislature must act to improve criminal justice

Every mother imagines what her children will do when they grow up. I planned to watch my son fall in love, start a family and make a career. All of that began to fade when my son, Steven Barnes, was convicted of murder in 1989.

He was innocent, but that didn't matter. Questionable eyewitness identifications linked him to the crime, and unvalidated forensic science made it seem to the jury like he did it.

Afterwards, everything changed for our family. I never imagined I would have to learn all about the law and the criminal justice system. I never thought I would spend every Saturday for 20 years driving to a state prison for supervised visits with my son.

Each time I arrived, I would hold my breath, hoping he was safe and surviving prison life. Even in that dismal environment, I was never ashamed of him.

I was, however, ashamed of our judicial system. If this could happen to my son, it could happen to anyone.

Earlier this year, Steven was exonerated with DNA testing. We are elated to have Steven back, but part of rebuilding our lives is making sure this doesn't happen to other families.

Right now, Gov. David Paterson and leaders in the state Legislature are deciding whether to make our justice system more fair, accurate and reliable so that law enforcement can identify the guilty and protect the innocent. The current legislative session ends later this month, and our elected officials can adopt critical reforms before then to prevent wrongful convictions that devastate individuals' lives, families and entire communities.

Steven is one of 24 people in New York wrongfully convicted and then exonerated with DNA testing. These cases are just the tip of the iceberg, since DNA testing is possible in just a tiny fraction of cases. But the exonerations show how our criminal justice system has failed, and how it can be fixed.

Our elected officials need to pass legislation to improve eyewitness identification procedures, require that interrogations in felony cases be videotaped, and ensure high-quality forensic science.

The Legislature also should create a task force to develop better systems for preserving evidence after people are convicted, and pass legislation to remove barriers to DNA testing when it can prove innocence.

If these policies had been in place, my son might not have been convicted -- or at the very least, he might have been exonerated years earlier. Instead, he lost the best years of his life.

The only thing more tragic than a wrongful conviction is knowing that it could have been prevented. On behalf of my family and countless other families across the states, I hope the Legislature acts quickly to improve our system of justice.

Sylvia Barnes Bouchard is the mother of Steven Barnes, who was wrongfully convicted of murder in 1989 and exonerated through DNA testing in 2009.


— Sylvia Barnes Bouchard