With a new position in the Philadelphia Office of the District Attorney, former Ohio Innocence Project (OIP) attorney Carrie Wood knows that, although the title has changed, her goal—as the old TV saying goes, to protect the innocent—is the same.
Wood’s move from the OIP to the district attorney’s staff isn’t as dramatic a change in direction as it sounds. She is an assistant district attorney, but her assignment is with the office’s Conviction Integrity Unit.
The emergence of conviction integrity units (CIUs) is a response from within the justice system to the irrefutable evidence that has come forth through the Innocence Movement that the system is not infallible, and that sometimes those convicted and imprisoned are truly innocent.
Wood has landed her new position in Philadelphia at a particularly interesting time. A new, reform-minded district attorney, Larry Krasner, won election to the office last November. Krasner’s career experience is as a civil rights attorney and public defender.
He has raised the issue of not just reviewing past convictions looking for indications of innocence, but also reviewing sentences to make sure that individuals are not serving terms that are egregiously disproportionate to the crime that was committed. It’s an approach that is stirring some controversy and that could also be challenging in finding a legal basis to revisit the sentencing decision.
Those who have advocated for such an effort, though, point to the growth in U.S. prison populations in the wake of stricter, mandatory sentencing guidelines, including “three strikes and you’re out” laws, in the 1980s and ‘90s. The result was a 790% increase in federal prison populations from 1980 through 2012, and a current U.S. prison population of 2.2 million, by far the highest per capita rate of any nation in the world.
“One of the things that attracted me to this job was the broader policy changes being looked at under the new district attorney,” says Wood, who is a UC College of Law graduate and was a staff attorney for the OIP from 2010-13. “It was clear that the issue of looking at the larger problem of over-criminalization and mass incarceration was going to be taken seriously.”
Wood is an assistant district attorney working under CIU Director Patricia Cummings, who gained a national reputation for the effectiveness of her previous work in Texas leading the Dallas County CIU. The office has two other assistant district attorneys and a paralegal to deal with the legacy of Philadelphia’s status of sending more individuals to prison than any other city in the U.S. northeast.
Gaining access to case information may be easier for Wood, now working within the system as opposed to her previous roles with OIP and three different public defender offices. But the challenges to find remedies in cases of injustice will continue to be as difficult as ever.
“Carrie was passionate and tireless in her pursuit of justice at OIP. So we are thrilled that she’ll be able to continue this work at the next level,” says Mark Godsey, co-founder and director of the OIP. “Carrie’s position truly is the next frontier of innocence work.”
Wood sees a certain full-circle aspect from where she started to the role she is in now. But she knows from experience one of the most troubling aspects of her work will never change.
“The cases that really stay with you are the ones where you had to tell someone that you think could be innocent that you didn’t think you could help them,” Wood says. “Maybe the evidence at trial was just circumstantial, but to get back into court you needed something new, and you just don’t have it. Those are tough – you have doubts, and those people languish in prison. Those are the ones that stick with you.”