Conviction Integrity Units: Righting the Wrongs or a Waste of Time?

Alejandra de la Fuente — September 18, 2012 @ 10:02 AM — Comments (0)

Conviction Integrity Units (CIUs) are beginning to gain momentum around the United States. Though each CIU has a unique mission and operates differently, the primary goal of all CIUs is to review questionable evidence that may have led to a wrongful conviction.

Because there isn’t a registry for all CIUs, it’s unknown how many there are exactly. However, the first CIU originated in Dallas County, Texas in July of 2007 by Dallas District Attorney Craig Watkins. Its objective is familiar to that of many Innocence Projects:

“The Conviction Integrity Unit reviews and re-investigates legitimate post-conviction claims of innocence in accordance with the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure, Chapter 64 (Motion for Forensic DNA Testing).  In addition, the Conviction Integrity Unit reviews and prosecutes old cases (DNA and non-DNA related) where evidence identifies different or additional perpetrators.”

Cook County’s (Illinois) State Attorney, Anita Alvarez, announced the creation of its CIU earlier this year, and on September 31, 2012, Alprentiss Nash was the first person to have his conviction vacated under the six-man unit. The prosecutor’s office has engaged in many questionable practices that have led to more than a dozen cases being dropped due to police brutality, coerced confessions, and DNA testing that proved innocence. Because of these practices, Cook County has the highest rate of wrongful convictions in the nation.

CIUs currently exist in the counties that have some of the highest numbers of wrongful convictions:

  • Cook (IL)                   78
  • Dallas  (TX)               36
  • Wayne   (MI)             18
  • New York  (NY)         14
  • Santa Clara  (CA)      10

At first glance this seems like a brilliant concept. Courts are actually acknowledging that mistakes are made within the legal system – enough that prosecuting agencies create special departments to exclusively review dubious cases. However, several questions can be posed about these new units.

What do CIUs mean for taxpayers?

Unlike Innocence Projects that are funded mainly through grants and donations, CIUs are a part of the district or state attorney’s office which means they are fully funded by tax payers dollars. Many believe that because the state administers the criminal laws in the names of its citizens and those citizens entrust prosecutors to do their job, that it is then only fair and just for the state to also pay to fix the mistakes of those who chose to ignore evidence and bend rules for the benefit of themselves.

CIUs investigate cases where there is doubt, but wasn’t that doubt present during the initial investigation? Money and time must be spent in order to revisit these cases. Unfortunately, it’s all on the dime of tax payers when those resources could be saved by simply getting it right the first time.

How can citizens trust the CIUs to remain independent?

As covered in a previous blog post, prosecutors sometimes break the law or bend the rules to get a conviction. What’s to say that these new units won’t be affected by the tone of these offices. Many of the CIUs are located within the prosecutors office which means it can be difficult to remain independent. Of course people would love to believe that they won’t, but Americans are not that gullible.

Why can’t the courts just get it right the first time?

Three men, Darryl Washington, Shakara Robertson, and Marcus Smith, were among a group of five men arrested and convicted of aggravated robbery in 1994. After an investigation conducted by the Dallas County CIU, it was revealed that five different men were responsible. Even though the five men responsible confessed to the crime, the statue of limitations in Texas prohibits them from being charged or convicted.

The three falsely accused men were convicted on what seemingly is a pattern in Dallas County: questionable identification procedures by Dallas police, faulty identification by witnesses, and evidence withheld from the defense attorneys. This behavior resulted in five criminals freely roaming the streets to do as they please. These men will never face the justice they deserve, and the faulty initial investigation wasted tax payers dollars only to falsely convict and imprison three innocent individuals. Convicting the right person the first time around saves time and money, and it ensures the safety of our nation.

While the creation of these units is admirable, their existence begs a few questions: Why can’t these offices just operate according to their own rules in the first instance?  And why aren’t they going the extra step of targeting the root of the problem, questionable legal and police behavior, instead of merely focusing on righting the wrongs to the wrongfully convicted?  The legal system is severely flawed and until there is accountability and a change, a CIU is just a Band-Aid over a deep laceration.

Even with all the doubt in place, one can admit that CIUs are a step forward in the path of much needed change, and hopefully they can remain independent enough to stay true to their mission.

Your Thoughts?

What do you think about Conviction Integrity Units? Do you believe they can be effective in the fight against wrongful convictions?

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