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Van de Kamp heads panel to study state’s criminal justice system

John Van de Kamp
Van de Kamp

Former State Bar President John Van de Kamp will chair the California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice, a nonpartisan panel studying how to improve the state’s criminal justice system. Van de Kamp, who served as attorney general from 1982-1990, was appointed by the Senate Rules Committee last month.

The commission was created in 2004 to examine flaws in the criminal justice system that might lead to wrongful convictions and suggest ways to prevent such convictions. It has until the end of 2007 to report back to the legislature.

Van de Kamp immediately named University of Santa Clara Law School professor Gerald Uelman as the group’s executive director and submitted five names to the rules committee to bring the commission’s membership to about 20. The commission was expected to meet late last month and has scheduled a March 15 hearing in San Francisco on the issue of false identification.

“We’re looking at why cases are getting reversed and what procedures can mitigate those factors,” Van de Kamp said. “We’ll take up a variety of subjects,” he added, ranging from how lineups are conducted to the death penalty.

The commission’s focus, he said, is “wrongful convictions and being able to provide safeguards and improvements to prevent that.”

Since 1989, eight convicted individuals have been exonerated through DNA testing, said Cookie Ridolfi, director of the Northern California Innocence Project, a clinic at Santa Clara’s law school. Nationally, there have been 173 exonerations in the same time period.

But Ridolfi pointed out that few cases involve DNA evidence, and in more than half the cases that do, the evidence has been lost, destroyed or degraded.

She said California has come late to the problem of wrongful conviction. “It’s not that it’s new, it’s just that now, we’re getting the attention,” she said. “I think California is finally starting to get it.”

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