We know the criminal justice system makes mistakes. In recent years as part of growing recognition of that fallibility, interest in innocence cases and post-conviction review has increased. In response, more than 25 district attorney’s offices—nationwide and in California—have established or plan to establish conviction review units (CRUs) with designated staff who investigate possible wrongful convictions and either recommend confirmation of the conviction or precede with an exoneration. CRUs, if implemented well, can increase the number of exonerations, identify and remedy criminal justice system mistakes, and expand opportunities to prevent future mistakes.
Locating CRUs within district attorneys’ offices raises concerns about the ability of prosecutors to look with fresh eyes at convictions secured by their colleagues. Certain practices can help ensure that CRUs truly offer a fair and impartial review of possible wrongful convictions.
On September 25, 2015, NCIP held the In the Interest of Justice: Conviction Review Programs symposium, sharing vital information about best practices in post-conviction review with 300+ participants. The symposium featured presentations by prosecutors, exonerees, judges, innocence project attorneys, researchers, academics, and others; those presentations are available for viewing below.
Santa Clara University School of Law Dean Lisa Kloppenberg opens with a warm welcome, and NCIP Policy Director Lucy Salcido Carter highlights the opportunity the symposium provides to share best-practices information. Retired Asst. District Attorney and NCIP volunteer staff attorney Karyn Sinunu-Towery and NCIP board member Rick Walker describe Mr. Walker’s wrongful conviction and the process leading to his exoneration, noting missed opportunities for justice in the original trial and highlighting key elements of good post-conviction review.
California Superior Court Judge LaDoris Cordell (ret.) introduces Quattrone Center Executive Director John Hollway who then presents his research on the emergence of CRUs and on key themes in the construction and management of these units. His research sheds light on valuable lessons learned to date from current CRUs; these lessons can inform the implementation of CRUs in other jurisdictions and guide effective post-conviction review throughout the country.
Moderator Police Chief (ret.) Scott Seaman leads public defenders, innocence project attorneys, and prosecutors in a discussion about the conviction review programs in their locales. Experts on the panel include Asst. Head Deputy District Attorney Kenneth Lynch (Los Angeles County, CA), Elected Public Defender (San Francisco County, CA) Jeff Adachi, District Attorney Mike Nerheim (Lake County, IL), Assistant District Attorney Mark Hale (King County, NY), District Attorney Jeff Rosen (Santa Clara County, CA), and Chris Mumma, Executive Director of the North Carolina Center on Actual Innocence.
Judge Cordell poses questions to the Hon. Alex Kozinski (Judge, US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit) and Santa Clara Law professors Kathleen Ridolfi and Gerald Uelmen regarding system challenges and their effect on wrongful convictions. Prof. Uelmen highlights the need for greater resources for public defense. Judge Kozinski raises the issue of tunnel vision and other system failures. Prof. Ridolfi describes the role that innocence projects and exonerations play in identifying causes of wrongful conviction and in showing the need for post-conviction review.
NCIP Legal Director Linda Starr leads an in-depth discussion about the Commission, an independent decision-making body established by the NC legislature. Commission experts presenting include Hon. Judge Arnold Jones, Wayne County, NC senior resident judge and chair of the Commission; Commission exoneree Greg Taylor; District Attorney (8th Prosecutorial District, ret.) and former Commissioner C. Branson Vickory III; defense attorney Chris Falko; and Duke Law Innocence Project supervising attorney and former Commission staff attorney Jaime Lau.
Asst. District Attorney Karyn Sinunu-Towery (ret.) engages prosecutors in a conversation about their post-conviction approaches, why they chose the structures and procedures they did, and with what results. The panel includes Hon. Mike Nerheim (District Attorney, Lake County, IL); Russell Wilson II, former director of the Dallas County, TX Conviction Integrity Unit; Deputy District Attorney Brent Neck (San Diego County, CA); Special Asst. District Attorney David Angel (Santa Clara County, CA); Deputy District Attorney Catherine Kobal (Alameda County, CA); and Asst. District Attorney Mark Hale (Kings County, NY).
Carter, Lucy Salcido and Kirvin, Bryn. (Summer 2016) Conviction review units: a modern model for seeking justice after trial. Prosecutor’s Brief. 38(4).
Center on the Administration of Criminal Law’s Conviction Integrity Project. (2012) Establishing Conviction Integrity Programs in Prosecutors’ Offices. New York, NY.
Hollway, John. (2016) Conviction review units: a national perspective. Faculty Scholarship. Paper 1614. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Law School.