If you’re behind bars for a wrongful conviction, official help may be on the way.
Backed by roughly $1 million in county funding, District Attorney Jackie Lacey announced Monday the creation of a unit that will review wrongful conviction claims.
Lacey said at the Hall of Justice that her office annually files more than 71,000 felony cases, most of which are upheld on appeal, but the pursuit of justice is not perfect.
“In a few instances, new evidence is discovered and, on rare occasions, mistakes are found,” Lacey said. “Whenever we receive new credible information that may exonerate a person, the responsibility is on us, as prosecutors, to re-examine the facts and, if appropriate, to seek to vacate a wrongful conviction.”
Ken Lynch, who has spent 22 years with the District Attorney’s Office prosecuting and supervising hard-core gang and sexual assault cases, will lead the unit. Two experienced deputy district attorneys, one senior investigator and one paralegal will be brought on to round out the team.
The unit is expected to review claims based on newly discovered evidence rather than procedural legal issues or claims of coercion or insanity. No formal court filings will be required to initiate a review, just a letter to the District Attorney’s Office from an inmate, attorney or innocence project.
Lacey said five criteria will govern selection of cases:
— there must be a claim of actual innocence, rather than a claim of self-defense or concerns raised about procedural legal issues;
— there must be newly discovered evidence;
— the claim of innocence must be based on identity;
— the claimant must have always maintained his or her innocence; and
— the claim must be brought for a conviction obtained after trial.
“The unit is not a 13th juror,” Lacey explained.
If the case warrants a formal investigation and a Conviction Review Committee — made up of managers similar to the group that reviews death penalty cases — ultimately decides the office has lost faith in the conviction, prosecutors will seek to have it vacated.
About two dozen prosecutorial agencies nationwide have set up such units.
Civil rights advocates who learned of Lacey’s plans earlier this year widely praised the initiative, but at least one cautioned that the devil is in the details. Simply setting up such a unit doesn’t guarantee adequate focus to ensure fair treatment, Barry Scheck, co-founder of the Innocence Project, told the Los Angeles Times in April.
“There are lots of people who can say, ‘Oh gee, I have a conviction integrity unit,’ because that’s now the necessary fashion accessory,” Scheck said.
Scheck suggested the unit would best uncover the truth if a former defense attorney led the group.
Lacey said her office had considered that possibility but decided against it.
“Unlike the defense, prosecutors have a mandate to seek the truth. Defense attorneys have a mandate to defend their client, no matter what the evidence shows.”
Lacey’s move comes in the wake of several high-profile convictions being overturned.
Loyola Law School’s Project for the Innocent worked to free Obie Anthony, who spent 17 years behind bars after a witness lied about his involvement in a shootout outside a South Los Angeles brothel. In April, the city of Los Angeles agreed to pay Anthony an $8.3 million settlement.
Susan Marie Mellen, who spent 17 years behind bars after being convicted for beating a man to death in Lawndale, had her conviction overturned last year. The previous year, Kash Delano Register went free after spending 34 years in prison on a murder conviction.
However, the district attorney said no particular case spurred her decision, saying she had been talking about the idea since before she was elected to her post in 2012.
In response to a question about whether prosecutors would feel second- guessed, she said, “All prosecutors want to make sure that the right person paid for the crime.”
Lacey said she believes there is a very small percentage of cases in which defendants were wrongfully convicted.
The Innocence Project cites various studies finding that 2.3 to 5 percent of all U.S. inmates are innocent. Lacey said her instinct told her that it is a “very small percentage.”
However, “my office will not turn away from its duty to look at new credible evidence that suggests a mistake has been made,” Lacey said. “We will seek the truth without fear.”
—City News Service
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