Courts & Crime

Prosecutors look to free the innocent – but won't release findings

Richard Alex Williams is interviewed in the law offices of Victor Haltom, on his first day free after being acquitted for a 1996 murder on Nov. 2, 2015. After three trials, the first a hung jury, the second convicted him of first-degree murder and was then tossed out, he was set free. He spent 18 years in jail.
Richard Alex Williams is interviewed in the law offices of Victor Haltom, on his first day free after being acquitted for a 1996 murder on Nov. 2, 2015. After three trials, the first a hung jury, the second convicted him of first-degree murder and was then tossed out, he was set free. He spent 18 years in jail. The Sacramento Bee

As local prosecutors launch specialized units to review wrongful conviction claims, some defense advocates say they are noticing a transparency deficit.

Many units decline to release their policies, to share their findings with the convicted, or even to publicize their contact information, making it difficult to tell which are genuinely reviewing innocence claims – and which might be a public relations move for the officials who created them.

“We’re getting better at detecting wrongful convictions, and the units reflect that trend,” said John Hollway, associate dean and executive director at Penn Law’s Quattrone Center for the Fair Administration of Justice, a policy and research hub that looks to improve the criminal justice system. “But there are definitely units that put this out there as just a PR move.”

There are fewer than 30 of these units nationwide, according to the National Registry of exonerations at the University of Michigan. The majority are known as conviction integrity units or conviction review units, and they are formed by teams of prosecutors located within a single jurisdiction, usually local district attorney’s office. The North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission is the only statewide unit, a legislature-created agency that acts independently of state prosecutors.

They share a common purpose: to review claims of innocence. What each does to accomplish that goal is less clear, some advocates say.

Rapid expansion

The units are multiplying quickly. There were twice as many conviction integrity units (CIU), also known as conviction review units (CRU), in 2015 as there were in 2013, a growth rate closely correlated with a spike in exonerations. Last year, 156 people were freed through exoneration, according to data provided by the University of Michigan’s National Registry of exonerations, a database of every known exoneration since 1989.

“The biggest single thing that’s changed is a high level of activity by CRUs,” said Samuel Gross, editor of the database.

We don’t really know what’s happening.

Lucy Carter, policy director at Santa Clara Law’s Northern California Innocence Project

And that rapid expansion, Hollway said, means a pressing need for best practices.

Of these, the most critical by far is transparency, said Lucy Carter, policy director at Santa Clara Law’s Northern California Innocence Project, an advocacy group that works to secure exonerations for the wrongfully convicted. “We don’t really know what’s happening,” Carter said.

Because their mission means working closely with the local district attorney’s office, innocence projects often collaborate with CRUs to help piece together best practices.

Advocates say their main areas of concern involve policies, contact information and case details.

Conviction integrity units vary in how they handle the issues. While the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission, for example, posts many of its procedures online (including a flowchart illustrating how cases are handled), others like the Ventura, Calif., County Conviction Integrity Unit, provide even the most basic of policies only upon request.

Seventy percent of CRUs don’t even have written policies, according to an April Quattrone Center report.

Some prosecutors say publishing stringent practices might deny teams the freedom to use necessary discretion in unique case reviews. “It’s important to have a policy that’s flexible,” said David Angel, the assistant district attorney who heads Santa Clara County’s Conviction Integrity Unit.

The unit, which launched in 2004, doesn’t have a written policy, Angel said. “There did not seem to be a need to write down what we did,” he said.

It’s important to have a policy that’s flexible. ... There did not seem to be a need to write down what we did.

David Angel, Santa Clara County, California, Conviction Integrity Unit

The unit also doesn’t provide instructions on submitting a case for review. “The lack of formality makes it easier (for claimants),” Angel said.

Hollway said that withholding basic information like this denies taxpayers the ability to establish confidence in the process. “Citizens have a right to know how public servants are spending their time,” he said.

Releasing basic information, such as how to submit a claim, is key, said Chris Mumma, executive director of the North Carolina Center on Actual Innocence, a nonprofit that coordinates innocence projects at several state law schools.

“You’ve got to have enough detail to give confidence in the process,” said Mumma. “Without it, how do you prove it’s not just a book cover without anything else inside?”

‘I wish I would’ve known’

Richard Williams of Sacramento, California, served 19 years for a murder he didn’t commit and was exonerated Nov. 2, 2015, after his attorney, Victor Haltom, proved he was misidentified by a witness. Williams said in a recent interview that he wishes he’d had a conviction integrity unit accessible to him.

“Of course I would have loved to have that resource,” Williams said. “Absolutely I wish I would’ve had more than what I had.”

It turns out Williams did have that resource – he just didn’t know it.

The Sacramento County conviction review team is labeled the Justice, Training and Ethics Unit, rather than a CRU, but “we’re doing exactly what other CRUs do,” said Steve Grippi, chief deputy district attorney for Sacramento County.

The unit has been reviewing claims since 2013, but doesn’t have its own email or phone number. Grippi cites the unit’s webpage as its primary means of outreach, but it contains just two sentences on what it does, and no information on how to submit a request.

All the information is locked. They’re potentially worse off than if their case had never been taken up.

Chris Mumma, executive director of the North Carolina Center on Actual Innocence, a nonprofit

Following an interview with Grippi on July 28, officials said they would work to improve contact information online. By the end of the same day, the unit’s website had been updated to include contact instructions and a mailing address.

Many CRUs also lack transparency when it comes to the most affected constituent of all – the prisoner it’s working to exonerate. In some cases, the units have failed fail to update the inmate or his or her attorney on the unit’s progress, leaving the prisoner unsure of what action to take next, Mumma said.

North Carolina’s nonprofit Center on Actual Innocence is involved in four cases that the state is investigating, all of which have taken five or more years, Mumma said. Over that time period, no party has heard any news, he said.

“We cannot update defendants on what’s happening, or if we should take a different avenue,” said Mumma. “All the information is locked. They’re potentially worse off than if their case had never been taken up.”

The North Carolina state legislature recently passed a bill to address this very issue. Taking effect Aug. 1, it obligates the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission to update the prisoner’s defense attorney every six months.

“That was just the practical thing to do,” said state Rep. N. Leo Daughtry of Smithfield, North Carolina, one of the bill’s three Republican sponsors. “It made the system more accessible.”

‘Not a ton of transparency’

“CIUs are uniformly popular with the electorate – they almost always get good press,” Gross, the registry editor, said. “The people who create them advertise them as one of their major accomplishments; they use it as a selling point in reelection campaigns.”

This popularity has led to a heightened scrutiny among defense advocates, wary that district attorneys and other elected officials might creating the units solely to garner favor with voters.

The fear is that prosecutors will set up a CRU more as a PR strategy than a real effort to look at possible wrongful convictions.

Lucy Carter, Northern California Innocence Project

“The fear is that prosecutors will set up a CRU more as a PR strategy than a real effort to look at possible wrongful convictions,” Carter said. “There’s just not a ton of transparency.”

As a result, some experts and advocates fear the closed doors may indicate not a diminished public presence, but a hollow solution to the issue of wrongful convictions.

“A lot has to be done to ensure these CRUs aren’t window dressing,” said Jamie Lau, a supervising attorney at Duke Law’s Innocence Project and Wrongful Convictions Unit, an advocacy group that looks to overturn wrongful convictions. “Or else they’re not going to be a solution to wrongful convictions.

“Short of transparency, there’s just no way of holding them accountable,” he said.

John Tompkins and Megan Henney contributed to this report.

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