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The Conviction Integrity Unit: Refining the Model

Since 1992, the Innocence Project—by identifying and reversing wrongful convictions—has been a watchdog for the U.S. criminal justice system. In light of nearly 300 wrongful convictions, should the justice system create its own self-correcting process? New York County District Attorney Cyrus Vance is giving it a shot.

On February 12,  Dateline NBC in the U.S. explored the troubling case of Adrian “JJ” Velazquez, imprisoned for the past 14 years. His conviction was based solely on eyewitness testimony, which now, with a recantation and other uncertainties, is in question. It’s all too familiar. After co-authoring a book on wrongful conviction, my husband Jim Petro, former Ohio Attorney General, and I began receiving pleas for help from people like Velazquez. Letters, packets, and  boxes with records and trial transcripts revealed the red flags of wrongful conviction and detailed years of an appeals process that failed to correct an alleged wrongful conviction.

Sadly, it is humanly impossible for a relatively small number of pro bono lawyers working with the nation’s Innocence Projects to respond to all whose cases are deserving of a second look. Many wrongfully convicted persons, having exhausted the limited options in the system to reverse a conviction, are desperately seeking the miracle response that Velazquez received: Dateline producer Dan Slepian selected Velazquez’s letters from the many inmate letters he has received and Dateline NBC commenced a ten-year investigation; new attorneys joined the case; Martin Sheen added celebrity attention; and Dateline produced a national television show on the case. JJ Velazquez is still in Sing Sing Correctional Facility, but things are looking up for him.

Velazquez may have one more avenue most who proclaim innocence don’t have. In 2009, New York County District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance created a Conviction Integrity Unit that seeks, in part, to “institute a formal process to review all post-conviction claims of innocence”.

Vance admits that the Unit is a work in progress, but has said that “if we now have evidence the jury did not know, or if there was some procedural defect in the trial that prevented the jury from evaluating the evidence fairly, then we would be more inclined to substitute our view of the case for that of the trial jury. But in each instance, the question is the same, and remains central: do we believe, or at least strongly suspect, that the defendant is actually innocent?”

On Dec. 6, 2011, in a Conviction Integrity Conference speech at New York University, Vance described the process of case review and progress made in the past year and a half in refining the Conviction Integrity Unit. Thus far, one verdict has been vacated; the case is pending a new trial. Two other case reviews resulted in the decision that the original verdicts were sound. Other cases are under review.

In October Velasquez’s attorney requested that his case be reviewed by the Conviction Integrity Unit. The Velasquez team is awaiting an official decision. Dateline NBC catapulted an old conviction and obscure claim of innocence to a high-profile case. This exposure may prompt further refining of the Conviction Integrity Unit model.

We’ve learned that the appeals process has been woefully inadequate in identifying and correcting miscarriages of justice. Innocence Projects alone cannot fully address the justice system’s errors. The scope of wrongful conviction requires an effective new  corrective process.  Innocence Commissions in some jurisdictions review known wrongful convictions to ascertain how we can do better and to drive reforms, but the focus of a Conviction Integrity Unit would be to review and even re-investigate individual, worthy post-conviction claims of innocence.

We now know that the justice system makes mistakes. Perhaps the time has come for the system to create a means of making corrections.

8 responses to “The Conviction Integrity Unit: Refining the Model

  1. Interesting Post, Nancy. Will be interesting to see how this develops under Vance…..

  2. In his model, the original Assistant DA reviews the case first with the Chief of the Conviction Integrity Unit. If the recommendation is to re-investigate the case, it is assigned to a different ADA. While this was the most concerning aspect of the concept, Vance says that he is convinced that it has worked well so far. I could imagine different approaches to the process in light of the varied cultures within DA offices.

  3. Oh, that’s not good. If the 280 some DNA exonerations in the U.S. only got reviewed if the original prosecuting DA recommended it for re-investigation, then they’re be very few exonerations.

  4. I know. Self performance re-examination is a challenging concept. The Conviction Integrity Unit concept assumes a DA office that makes seeking the truth the top priority. Although this was not exhibited in many of the DNA wrongful conviction cases, can we anticipate change will be prompted by growing awareness of the system’s errors? Other institutions, such as healthcare/medical centers, have had to become self-correcting. This has required institutional focus and culture change. Shouldn’t we expect/demand the same of the criminal justice system?

  5. In the great state of confusion AKA: Texas, ‘Harris County’ has implemented a Unit following on the heels of the Unit created in Dallas County. Sadly, despite what anyone says and I mean anyone, they (Harris) will not consider looking at claims of actual innocence regarding cases which are; void of DNA evidence, Death Row related or Closed/Cleared. I should know due to sending my info. in five times since day one of inception. Not including the packetts sent in to the prior DA’s office since 1998.

    When we (taxpayers) allow the police to police themselves, the courts to ignore the role of the judge & the Governor’s Board to implement impossible loopholes, we get what we pay for. Mis-trust in the entire system by all races, which will eventually back-fire and engulf an entire nation. Thanks for your awesome piece on this topic and thoughts that will resonated throughout the blog world and beyond.

    PNG Team Member:
    Thomas R. Griffith

    To add insult to injury, in order to be ‘considered’ for ‘consideration’ an applicant for a Full Pardon – for innocence must contact the ‘Three’ original trial officals and obtain an unanimouse approval. Ha, with absolutely no incentives to participate in the process of agreeing that you participated in a good ol fashion Texas Railroading, you can appriciate why applicants are Denied.

    Despite possessing and submitting ample proof in the form of information purchased from the Courts (certified case files), the Police (mug-shot) & (ten page Incident Report), one would think that it would be enough. But when you include an ADA coming out of retirement ‘twice’ to write the Texas Board of Pardons & Paroles to voice that ‘he’s not in favor, you get the results of a rigged system.

  6. I recently saw this broadcast and it was so compelling that I want to help. Thank heavens Velazquez found Dan Slepian! I wonder if Mr. Slepian would take more cases? Have you sent any to him?

  7. Hello Janet, not sure if you are addressing The Team member above or not? But, thank you just the same. Yes, I have personally sent him a “package of proof” along with a copy of Mrs. Petro’s article on Feb. 21, 2012 and don’t expect to ever hear from him due to the tired ol sayings’ – no DNA?, no Death Row?, not an Active or Open case?, not in Custody? not a Minority? Go Away & Good luck in your endeavors. (Yes, I’ve heard em’ all.)

    Despite this negative anticipation, I sent it in due the tired ol saying – the squeaky wheel get’s the grease. *BTW. This human and VOTS hasn’t seen a grease gun yet & I don’t expect to be having a beer with the President over it. Thanks.

    Note: He’s a Public Hero in my opinion, regardless.

  8. Pingback: Decision of Conviction Integrity Unit Leaves Many Questions Unanswered | Wrongful Convictions Blog

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