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.