Posts Tagged ‘Conviction integrity units’

District Attorneys Seeking Justice for the Innocent!

Taylor Thornton — April 20, 2018 @ 3:20 PM — Comments (0)

Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner is one of many district attorneys operating conviction integrity units in their offices.

In the last few years, an awareness seems to be growing in our society for those who are wrongfully convicted and a support for the exoneration of those people. Wrongful conviction stories are showing up more and more frequently in the media across television, movies, and even podcasts as public interest grows (you can read more about some of those here). Over the past few decades, as well, it appears that public opinion is shifting on the way we view crime and punishment as a society, seeming to favor rehabilitation over more punitive measures and harsh mandatory sentences. As this cultural shift grows, we are now seeing support coming from an unusual source: prosecutors.

Typically, the goal of a prosecutor is to get as many guilty verdicts as possible, because that is just their job. But, it appears that a new generation of prosecutors have come along that are placing a greater priority on the quality of their convictions. Across the country, more than 30 district attorneys have created conviction integrity units. A conviction integrity unit is a unit established within a prosecutorial office that serves to go through and investigate the past cases of that office in search of wrongful convictions. The reasons for these wrongful convictions can be intentional malfeasance by the prosecutors or the police, but it can also include bad forensic science or flaws in the investigation.

The conviction integrity unit created within the Brooklyn district attorney’s office had massive success since its establishment in 2011. In just a short amount of time under Brooklyn District Attorney Ken Thompson’s leadership, his unit has been able to overturn over 19 convictions since he took office in 2014. It has become a national leader in exonerations, particularly for murder convictions. This number includes Vanessa Gathers, the first female to be exonerated by this unit. Gathers is one of a number of defendants accusing retired NYPD detective Louis Scarcella of using tactics to extract false confessions from suspects. She has finally had her name cleared after serving 10 years in prison and 5 more on parole for a manslaughter conviction that she was innocent of.

Despite the very quickly growing success of these units, there is still a long way to go before a real dent is made in the number of inmates wrongfully incarcerated throughout the country. Only about 30 district attorney’s offices of the few thousand nationwide have created these units. That being said, these have been a huge and very positive step in the right direction. Changing the culture of the way we view wrongful convictions, especially by those in powerful positions inside prosecutorial offices, gives hope for less injustice moving forward.

One issue not yet being tackled by these units, however, is addressing those cases in which the conviction was valid but the punishment might not be. This is a much more daunting task to address for prosecutors but it is an idea that would likely render much public support. Philadelphia is likely to soon create the first sentence review program in our nation’s history. A sentence review unit would work similarly to conviction integrity units but would instead evaluate if the punishment was fair. New Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner is making plans with his staff to create such a unit. Numerous other district attorneys across the country are also working with an organization called Fair and Just Prosecution to create their own units as well.

While this task is a lot easier said than done, moves are being made in the right direction to help repair the important flaws in our system. These new progressive prosecutors are starting the important conversations about what success and justice should look like within our nations prosecutorial offices. Raising the integrity of these office and their convictions serves to lessen time spent behind bars by innocent people. It can also serve to find those true assailants left on the streets before they offend and cause harm to anyone again. These units can educate prosecutors and the public alike to raise their awareness on where they might have gone wrong in the past so that these mistakes can be learned from and the tragedies of wrongful convictions can be minimized.

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Harris County’s Conviction Integrity Unit’s Drug Crime Exonerations

Alejandra de la Fuente — March 01, 2016 @ 4:00 PM — Comments (1)

A few weeks ago, the National Registry of Exonerations released their annual report detailing the exonerations that occurred in 2015. A detailed summary of that report can be accessed here. One part of the report was designated to prosecutorial offices’ Conviction Integrity Units (CIU), which aim to prevent, identify, and reverse wrongful convictions. CIUs have helped exonerate 151 people since 2003. One CIU in particular stood out in the registry’s 2015 exoneration report—the one in Harris County, Texas.

Of the total 151 CIU exonerations, Harris County (HC) was involved in almost half of them. In addition, HC’s CIU boasts 73 drug crime exonerations since mid-2014. Those drug crimes included possession or sale, and the exonerations occurred after lab tests proved the the purported drugs did not contain illegal substances.

Last year, there were 51 exonerations in drug cases, and HC’s CIU was responsible for 82% of them. Of the 47 people convicted for drug possession, a whopping 42 of them were from HC. All of HC’s CIU exonerations in 2015 involved drug-conviction guilty pleas, which brings to attention an important aspect.

Inger Chandler, the deputy district attorney that took over HC’s CIU in 2014, found that forensic crime labs gave the lowest priority to cases in which defendants pled guilty. Most labs are backlogged, and therefore felt no urgency to test the samples in those cases. In response to her findings, Chandler implemented new procedures hoping to combat the problem. One of these procedures is to test drug evidence in the order that it arrives. If the tests prove there are no illegal substances present, the public defender’s office is notified so they can file a writ to have the conviction reversed. Nicholas Hughes, the assistant public defender that handles most of the cases, gives priority to any cases in which someone is currently serving a sentence.

Another important factor that came to light in these cases is the field test used by law enforcement to test drugs. The test kits contain chemicals that change color upon contact with illegal substances. However, these field tests are known to be unreliable, generating positive results for illegal substances for items such as Jolly Rancher candy and soap. Out of the 73 drug crime exonerations in HC, these shoddy field tests were responsible for 39 of the charges.

The biggest question raised by the record high number of drug crime exonerations in HC relates back to guilty pleas and why defendants pled guilty in the first place. Chandler explained that defendants might have thought they were in fact possessing illegal drugs, when in reality the drugs they purchased were actually fake. Another reason may be due to the fact that prosecutors consider crimes such as drug possession low priority, and therefore can avoid wasting their time on them by offering defendants plea deals. Because many defendants cannot afford private attorneys or do not wish to spend years of their life behind bars attempting to prove their innocence, oftentimes they think plea deals are their best option.

In addition to Chandler’s procedural fixes, the HC District Attorney’s Office has also made efforts to prevent this issue. In February of last year, they upgraded one of their policies to no longer offer plea deals to defendants facing jail time for drug possession until the forensic lab returns complete results.

Unfortunately, CIUs have experienced some setbacks. Many district attorneys’ offices do not care to be bothered with reopening these cases. In addition, some jurisdictions destroy evidence once a defendant has pled guilty. Despite these circumstances, CIUs have and will continue to do great work in helping to exonerate innocent people.

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New TV Drama about Wrongful Conviction

Alejandra de la Fuente — February 17, 2016 @ 4:00 PM — Comments (0)

Thanks to various media outlets and programs such as the podcast Serial and Netflix’s Making a Murderer, wrongful convictions have gained increasing notoriety over the past couple years. Going along with the public’s seemingly newfound obsession with the topic, the Big-4 network ABC intends to pilot a new show about wrongful conviction.

The show, titled Conviction, will feature Hayley Atwell, who stars as the lead role in ABC’s Agent Carter.   The company recently added Emily Kinney to the cast. Kinney is best known for her role in AMC’s insanely popular show The Walking Dead.

Conviction is about Atwell’s character, Carter Morrison, who is blackmailed into taking a job as the head of a newly formed Conviction Integrity Unit (CIU) in Los Angeles. Morrison, the daughter of a former president, along with her team of lawyers, investigators, and forensic experts, examines cases containing sufficient evidence that suggests the wrong person was convicted of a crime. Kinney will play Tess Thompson, a paralegal that joins the team. She has a strong passion for wrongful convictions, reasons for which are unknown. Thompson previously worked at the Innocence Project, but joined the CIU because she felt she could make more of an impact working on cases from inside the criminal justice system.

This show, if picked up, will hopefully bring to light some of the great work that innocence projects across the nation have been doing for decades.

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2015: A Record-Setting Year in the World of Wrongful Conviction

Alejandra de la Fuente — February 08, 2016 @ 4:00 PM — Comments (2)

Every year, the National Registry of Exonerations releases an annual report on all the exonerations that occurred that year. The report lists the total number of exonerations for that year and also provides details about those exonerations such as what crimes occurred and what caused the wrongful convictions. As of January 27, 2016, the Registry has recorded a total of 1,733 exonerations in the United States since 1989. Exonerations are now common, averaging at about 3 exonerations per week. The Registry released their exoneration report for 2015 on February 3, 2016, and the report shows that several records related to wrongful conviction were broken last year.

There were 149 exonerations in 2015, which is more than any other year. The previous record was 139 exonerations in 2014. Of the 149 exonerations last year, exonerees spent an average of 14.5 years in prison. The majority of exonerations were for violent crimes—39% were homicide and ten percent were adult and child sexual assault. The exonerations that were for non-violent crimes were mostly drug possession and distribution cases. The exonerations took place in 29 states and Washington, D.C, along with three exonerations in federal cases and one in Guam. Texas had the most number of exonerations with 54, followed by New York with 17 and Illinois with 13. Florida had the tenth highest number of exonerations in the country with three.

Another record was broken in regards to homicide cases, which were responsible for the largest number of exonerations last year—58 to be exact, which is more than any other year. These exonerations took place in 25 states and 54 were for murder and four were for manslaughter. The largest percentage of homicide exonerees were African American at 49%, followed by Caucasian at 32%, then Hispanic at 11%, and other at nine percent. Of the 58 total homicide exonerees, 55 were men and three were women, ranging in age from 14 to 54. Eight of them were under 18 years old, and 23 were under 20 years old. Homicide exonerees spent an average of 18 years in prison, and all together spent 696 years in prison. Five of them were sentenced to death, 14 received life without the possibility of parole, five received life with the possibility of parole, and the rest were sentenced to decades in prison.

Drug cases also broke a record, in which 47 people were exonerated for drug possession. Of those 47 exonerees, 42 of them had pled guilty in Harris County, Texas alone. The exonerees may have pled guilty for several reasons, such as because they thought the drugs found on them contained illegal substances even though they actually did not or because they had previous criminal records and could not afford to hire a decent attorney or go to trial even though they were innocent. Many times, people were arrested on the error of police officers that may have identified something as a drug when it actually was not; for example misidentifying over-the-counter medication as prescription pills. Errors can also occur when officers perform field tests that are used to identify controlled substances because these tests are often unreliable, sometimes even mistaking candy for drugs. Drug case exonerees received sentences ranging from community service to two years in jail.

Records were also set last year in regards to how wrongful convictions occurred in the first place. False confessions were responsible for a record 27 exonerations. Of those 27 exonerations, 22 were homicide cases in which most defendants were under the age of 18, mentally handicapped, or both. Among death sentences in the United States, the rate of false confessions is about four percent. Official misconduct was involved in a record total of 65 cases, and in three quarters of homicide cases. Guilty pleas were responsible in another record total of 65 cases. The majority, or 46, of guilty pleas were in drug cases, and a record number of eight were in homicide cases, which all involved false confessions.

Some exonerations occurred because it was found that no crimes actually occurred. No-crime cases were involved in a record number of 75 of 2015’s exonerations, 48 of which were drug cases, six of which were murder convictions—yet another record—and 14 of which were for other violent felonies.

DNA evidence was wholly or partially responsible for 26 exonerations—17% of the 149 total exonerations last year. Of all exonerations recorded by the Registry, DNA exonerations are involved in 24% of them.

2015 was also a big year for Conviction Integrity Units (CIU). These units are branches of prosecutorial offices that focus on preventing, identifying, and reversing wrongful convictions. CIUs were involved in 152 exonerations overall between 2003 and 2015, including a record-breaking number of 58 last year and one so far in 2016. Almost three quarters, or 109, of the 152 CIU exonerations occurred in 2014 and 2015. In addition, almost half took place in Harris County, Texas thanks to their CIU.

While exonerations may now be considered commonplace, the work to free the wrongfully convicted continues.

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Today in Wrongful Conviction History: January 13

Alejandra de la Fuente — January 13, 2016 @ 4:00 PM — Comments (0)

Happy exoneration anniversary, Jerome Thagard and Donald Stiers!

Jerome was exonerated in New York in 2014:


Donald was exonerated in Texas in 2015 with help from the Harris County District Attorney’s Office’s Post Conviction Review Unit.


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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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