Nine months ago, the Los Angeles County District Attorney established a wrongful conviction unit with the goal of investigating credible claims of innocence in serious or violent felony cases in which there is new and substantial evidence, such as DNA, that suggest a person in prison may be innocent of the crime(s) for which he/she was convicted. In order for a case to qualify for consideration, the person must currently be in custody and must have claimed innocence from the beginning.
Since its creation, the wrongful conviction unit has received an outpouring of 730 innocence claims. Most of the cases are serious, including murder cases, with people serving life sentences or considerable amounts of time in state prisons. The LA County District’s Attorney’s Office prosecutes about a third of all of California’s criminal cases, so only about a third of the 730 responses have been preliminarily reviewed, with none being brought back to court thus far. Although the attorneys submitting the claims argue that this is a slow pace, according to District Attorney Jackie Lacey, at least one case is now being formally investigated. Lacey stated that her office is working hard, diligently, and as quickly as possible to review the high volume of cases.
While the district attorney is aware that people remain in prison every day and that the wrongfully convicted could be waiting for assistance, she asked for patience and cooperation as investigators thoroughly review cases.
Founder of Loyola University’s Project for the Innocent, Laurie Levenson, commented that while Lacey’s heart is in the right place, perhaps the issue is starting up the unit and understanding how to make those kinds of decisions. She went on to say that this is frustrating for her team because they have cases that they want resolved immediately. Currently, the project has 213 cases ready for review, 42 claims that have been rejected, 13 that have been assigned to staff for follow up, and a couple that are being thoroughly investigated. They submitted two cases to the wrongful conviction unit last year, including one involving an elderly woman they believe was wrongfully convicted for her grandchild’s death. The other case is more complicated and involves an ongoing investigation.
The unit has also received cases that involve sex crimes, “shaken baby syndrome” deaths, robberies, child molestation, and family violence. Claims containing various types of evidence that challenge convictions have been reviewed, according to the Assistant Head Deputy for the Post-Conviction Litigation and Discovery Unit, Ken Lynch. He stated that they are reviewing a number of cases, including ones in which DNA can be obtained, some that argue a conviction is no longer valid because science has changed—specifically arson and “shaken baby syndrome” cases, and cases where the defendant was convicted through the use of circumstantial evidence.
Lacey stated that before the unit was established, cases only had a slight chance of getting reviewed unless innocence projects were involved. But now with the unit, experienced prosecutors and trained investigators are guaranteed to review cases. She asserted that creating such a unit was the right thing to do, but asks for patience while it does its work.