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Cal U professor lends expertise to study on wrongful convictions


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By Ron Paglia
Sunday, April 15, 2007

As a former law enforcement officer on the national and international levels, professor John R. Cencich brings more than the traditional classroom and textbook background to his students at California University of Pennsylvania.

And now Cencich, chairman of Cal U's Department of Justice, Law & Society, is extending his experience and expertise to Pennsylvania's new Advisory Committee on Wrongful Convictions. The panel was appointed by the Joint State Government Commission of the General Assembly.

The advisory committee is composed of individuals experienced in prosecution, defense, law enforcement, corrections, the judiciary, victim assistance, academia, the faith community and criminal justice. Cencich meets the requirements in several of those areas.

"Hopefully, I can bring added value to the committee and its efforts," Cencich said. "We have a very diversified group of men and women with considerable experience and involvement, and I'm looking forward to working with them on this very significant project."

The Advisory Committee on Wrongful Convictions was authorized by Senate Resolution 381 of 2006 and carries a mandate to study the underlying causes of past wrongful convictions and develop recommendations intended to reduce the possibility that factually innocent people will be convicted in Pennsylvania.

The committee held its first meeting recently in Harrisburg. Attorney General Tom Corbett attended the session.

"It was an explanatory meeting; that is, we discussed what we need to do in the coming months," Cencich said.

The advisory committee's report is due to the Senate by Nov. 30, 2008.

Cencich, who joined the California University faculty in 2002, emphasized that the committee's work will be directed toward "general areas ... where mistakes may have been made" in the convictions of individuals in Pennsylvania and across the United States.

"We're not here to find fault with any individual or any agency," he said. "Rather, we intend to look at several areas in which someone may have been wrongfully or mistakenly convicted. These would include, but not be limited to, eyewitness testimony, DNA and forensic science, so-called false confessions, and inadequate defense counsel. We will examine those areas and come up with a consensus of ideas as to how the process can be improved and how to avoid repeating these situations."

As a career law enforcement officer who holds a law degree, Cencich is keen on ensuring there is not "a rush to judgment in the belief that the criminal justice system is falling apart and all sorts of innocent people are being arrested and falsely convicted."

"That is not to suggest that anyone on the advisory committee holds such a view," Cencich said. "But I am hopeful my background will help add balance and perspective to what already appears to be a well-rounded group of committee members. On the other hand, if we can identify some of the causes or contributing factors that have led to wrongful or mistaken convictions, and we can make recommendations that might serve to prevent such a recurrence, we will have a truly significant accomplishment."

Cencich believes the panel will examine past cases in Pennsylvania and around the country.

"Just because there was an innocent person convicted does not necessarily mean any individual was indeed at fault," he said in reaffirming the purpose of the study. "We will, however, examine cases to see if there are areas of improvement and make recommendations in this regard."

As a member of the Advisory Committee on Wrongful Convictions, Cencich joins a select group of individuals. And he sees that as a distinction for California University.

"It is a distinct reflection on the excellent justice studies program we have here," Cencich said. "We are very fortunate to have the support of the administration and the Council of Trustees in advancing and enhancing our curriculum. The program continues to grow each semester, and that speaks volumes about what California has to offer students pursuing careers in criminal justice and law enforcement."

In addition to Cencich, others from Western Pennsylvania on the committee include professor John T. Rago, of the Duquesne University School of Law, District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr., police superintendent Charles W. Moffat, and public defender Michael J. Machen, all of Allegheny County; and Senior Judge Robert E. Colville. Rago chairs the 36-member committee.

The panel also includes Ray Krone, a York native who was freed from death row in Arizona after DNA testing proved him innocent of a murder-rape for which he had been convicted.

"As I said, the committee represents a diversified group of experiences and ideas, people who definitely bring valuable insight to the table," Cencich said.

Cencich, 49, came to California after retiring from a career of more than 20 years as a state special agent and as a U.S. federal agent in the areas of organized crime, counter-intelligence, anti-terrorism and, most recently, international crimes against humanity. He also had more than 16 years of teaching experience, both in police academies and in higher education.

His background includes extensive training from the FBI, Scotland Yard and the U.S. Air Force Office of Special Investigations.

Before coming to Cal U, Cencich worked in the office of the prosecutor, International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, at The Hague, Netherlands. He led the international criminal investigation against the late Slobodan Milosevic, former president of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, who was charged with crimes against humanity alleged to have been committed in the Republic of Croatia.

Milosevic's death on March 11, 2006, came before his trial ended, but Cencich said, "there is every reason to believe" that Milosevic would have been found guilty on "most, if not all, charges" arising from the indictment.

"Milosevic's death was indeed a tragedy," Cencich said. "The victims and the world would have been better served by a verdict in the case."

Cencich has always stood behind the merits of the investigation and the indictment. But while the trial was ongoing, he repeatedly said that Milosevic was "presumed innocent until proven guilty."

And he is quick to comment on the men and women who worked on the War Crimes Tribunal, in particular, members of the prosecutor's office.

"These dedicated public servants worked endless hours for years to bring about international justice, and the death of Mr. Milosevic did not bring those outstanding, selfless efforts to an end," he said.

He also lauded the efforts of individual witnesses who provided crucial evidence in the Milosevic case and in similar cases in other countries.

"These cases could not be successfully prosecuted without the courage of the victims, family members of victims and other witnesses," he said. "In many instances, they had to travel across the globe, often in fear of retribution. They are the true heroes; their efforts have not been in vain."

Cencich said his work as a special agent with the Air Force Office of Special Investigations allowed him to work with serious crimes such as rape, robbery and homicide. The mission of OSI also extends to anti-terrorism, counter-espionage and counter-intelligence investigations.

But the work of the War Crimes Tribunal involved investigation of "some of the world's worst crimes and most notorious criminals," he said.

"These crimes ranged from murder, torture, rape, extermination and forced expulsions; they were, indeed, crimes against all of humanity," Cencich said.

He worked several interesting homicide cases, interrogated mercenaries and murderers, and ended up leading one of the largest international criminal investigations since World War II -- one that involved the first criminal indictment of a sitting head of state under the theory of the Joint Criminal Enterprise.

That experience was enriched by his opportunity to work with "some of the finest detectives and prosecutors in the world," Cencich said.

"The cases took us virtually to every continent and endless countries," he recalled. "It doesn't get much better than that."

As for his work at California University, Cencich is quick to acknowledge his teaching colleagues in Justice Studies for the "real-life experiences" they bring to the learning process.

"When our students ask questions about specific aspects of criminal justice, the law or law enforcement, they use their life experiences to respond," he said. "Our professors have worked the streets. They know well of what they speak, and I believe that's what sets California apart from other schools."

The Department of Justice, Law & Society at Cal U includes justice studies, forensic anthropology, archaeology, sociology and forensic science.

Cencich enjoys taking on new assignments such as the Advisory Committee on Wrongful Convictions.

"This is a very significant study that's been assigned to the committee," he said. "Pennsylvania is one of the first states in the country to form such a committee, and it's important that we do all we can to fulfill our responsibilities."

While he's doing that, as well as teaching, Cencich also will continue his research involving the investigation and prosecution of international war criminals as part of a fellowship with the University of Notre Dame Law School.

He also serves as coach of the Cal U Mock Trial Team, and he is president of the International Association of War Crimes Investigators.

Given his background in law enforcement and his experience in teaching, coming to California University of Pennsylvania was a natural move for Cencich.

"It is just coincidental that after my work with the War Crimes Tribunal that I ended up living and working in this area," he said. "I had always wanted to be a professor, and when I finished my job with the United Nations, I accepted a professorship at California. The Justice Studies program was just really getting going at the time, and I was provided the opportunity to bring my organized crime and international criminal justice experience here."

Ron Paglia can be reached at .

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