Category Archives: Commissions/Innocence Commissions/Governmental Case Review Agencies

Why a Wrongful Conviction is Like a Plane Crash – or Should Be

The civil aviation system and the justice system are two ubiquitous systems on which we absolutely depend daily; even with our lives.  When either of these systems fails, the consequences are invariably tragic, impacting families and lives.

When a plane crash occurs, the NTSB (National Traffic Safety Board) and the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration), along with local police, fire, and medical examiners, literally swoop in, and investigate the crash down to the minutest detail.  Sometimes, even the FBI gets involved. See the article “Inside the Aircraft Accident Investigation Process” here. As a result of the investigation, there can be changes made to the air traffic control system, and orders can go out to aircraft manufacturers and airlines requiring design changes or inspections of aircraft, and whole fleets of airplanes can be grounded until changes or fixes are implemented.  New training requirements can be established. All this is the absolutely proper and necessary thing to do.  When a system that we all depend on fails, we need to understand what happened, understand why it failed, and make changes so it never happens again.

If this is true for the air travel system, and I cannot believe anyone would disagree with that, why should the same not be true for the justice system? It’s a system on which we all depend.  When it fails, lives are shattered, children are taken from parents, families are separated, innocent people are put in prison, and innocent people are even executed.

When a failure of the justice system occurs, what happens? Based upon my years of working in this, absolutely nothing. A wrongful conviction may be overturned, but nothing changes in the system as a result of it, and indeed, there is not even an investigation by an authoritative body to determine what went wrong, and how to fix it. My experience tells me that when the justice system fails, the response from the system is, “Oh well, too bad. Now on with business as usual.” And the same failures keep happening over and over and over.

Why can’t there be an “NTSB” for the justice system? — a body with the authority and responsibility to examine justice system failures, and to take the necessary actions to ensure they don’t happen again. This could absolutely be done on the state level. I find the logic of this inescapable. You cannot possibly build a credible, supportable argument against it. But knowing what I know about politics, legislatures, and human nature, I’m not optimistic. But how can you possibly argue that this wouldn’t be the right thing to do?

Growing Number of Inmates in US Prisons Found Innocent

Here’s a neat YouTube video featuring both the National Registry of Exonerations and the Center for Prosecutor Integrity.

See the YouTube video here.

Editorial comment:  The video praises the recent creation of “conviction integrity units” within prosecutors’ offices.  These have received much good press in general. We can only applaud the effort and the results so far. After all, the correction of a wrongful conviction is the correction of a wrongful conviction. However, I remain skeptical. My view is that the CIU’s are cherry picking the easy, obvious cases, and what will happen when they start to run out of these? I also believe that the CIU’s are being established driven by political expediency, not some fundamental desire to serve true justice.  When the CIU’s start to be dismantled, I suspect there will be very little, if any, publicity about that.

 

North Carolina Innocence Commission’s success has yet to inspire other states to follow suit

With eight exoncerations to its credit, the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission is living up to its goals when it was established in 2006. With official powers that others who investigate possible wrongful conictions don’t have, The Atlantic reports here, the commission has been able to crack cases that others might not have been be able to. That should make it a national model for how states could correct wrongful convictions, but it hasn’t been so far. Money is one reason. A lack of commitment may be another.

Connecticut Makes First Ever Compensation Payment to an Exoneree

Exoneree compensation was approved by the CT legislature in 2008, but the state has just made its first ever compensation payment to Kenneth Ireland who spent 21 years in prison after being wrongfully convicted of rape and murder.

Ireland was awarded $6 million on Thursday by the state’s Office of the Claims Commissioner.

See the aol.com story here.

 

National Registry of Exonerations: 2014 was Record-breaking with 125 Exonerations in U.S.

For the first time, more than 100 exonerations were recorded in the United States in one year. According to The National Registry of Exonerations Report for 2014, 125 exonerations of innocent criminal defendants mark an increase of 34 over the prior record of 91 in 2012 and 91 again in 2013. The report notes the work of Conviction Integrity Units in the increase.

“The big story for the year is that more prosecutors are working hard to identify and investigate claims of innocence. And many more innocent defendants were exonerated after pleading guilty to crimes they did not commit,” said Michigan Law Professor Samuel Gross, editor of the National Registry of Exonerations and the author of the report.

Both the number of Conviction Integrity Units and the exonerations they produced increased in 2014. There were 49 CIU exonerations in 2014, including Continue reading

A Word About Conviction Integrity Units

There has been a reasonable amount of fanfare recently about the establishment of “conviction integrity units.”  See Mark Godsey’s December 11 WCB post, “Center for Prosecutor Integrity Surveys Rise of Conviction Integrity Units”, here.

We can do nothing but applaud these efforts, but there is one aspect of these units that troubles me.  They are all totally contained within the prosecutor’s office.  Does anyone else think this presents an inherent conflict of interest?  My suspicion is that, because of increasing publicity about wrongful convictions, prosecutors are establishing these things to politically bolster their public image. Call me cynical – and we should welcome every step toward true justice – but I tend to see a fox guarding the hen house and a wolf in sheep’s clothing.  Is there any requirement that all proceedings of these units be public record?

My belief is that the model for how these units should be set up is the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission, which has been in operation since 2007.  What I think is notable here is the composition of the commission: the members include a Superior Court Judge, a Prosecuting Attorney, a Defense Attorney, a Victim Advocate, a Member of the Public, a Sheriff, and two Discretionary members.  This shows a reasoned effort to endow the commission with objectivity.

In a very recent development, the Innocence Project of New Orleans has announced that it is partnering with the Orleans district attorney’s office to establish a joint “conviction review project.” See the IPNO announcement here. This is a big deal, and will bear watching.

New York Taxpayers to Pay $9 Million in Wrongful Conviction Settlement

New York City, its Housing Authority, and the State of New York have agreed to pay $9 million to Danny Colon, 50, and Anthony Ortiz, 44. Both men spent 16 years in prison before their convictions in a 1989 double murder — a drive-by shooting — were overturned in 2009.

The New York Court of Appeals reversed an earlier Appellate court decision and ordered a new trial for the men after finding that the Manhattan prosecutor had knowingly utilized false testimony from a key witness, a felon and drug dealer. The prosecutor denied in her final argument to the jury that the witness had been compensated for his testimony, but he subsequently received a Continue reading