POSITION PAPER 5: CREATING A CONVICTION INTEGRITY UNIT
Errors in the criminal justice system that send the innocent to prison destroy the lives of those mistakenly convicted. On top of this, every wrongful conviction undermines public trust and confidence in the system designed to keep the community safe. While the justice system may never be free from human error, prosecutors have a duty to take all available steps to reduce the chances of deliberate or accidental misconduct leading to a wrongful conviction and correct the mistakes of the past.
A recent innovation in District Attorneys’ offices to accomplish this is a specialized unit to review past convictions for errors that might lead to exoneration of the innocent. Their structures and scope vary across jurisdictions, but these groups of investigators, prosecutors, and defense attorneys who review prior convictions have lead to hundreds of exonerations across the country in recent years. The most successful and productive CIUs are independent, transparent, have a wide range of cases to investigate, and are provided with the necessary funding and staff to conduct their work in a timely manner.
The next District Attorney in Queens will have a responsibility to build the office’s first CIU, following the best practices set by other jurisdictions. With years of experience managing a large government staff and a multimillion dollar budget, Melinda Katz is best prepared to establish an effective CIU in the Queens District Attorney’s office. Based on recommendations from the Innocence Project and other leading experts, below is a brief overview of how she will bring Queens in line with the rest of the city to create an effective Conviction Integrity Unit.
Structure and Scope
Effective CIUs are distinguished by their chain of command and staffing. Several key decisions in determining who works on a CIU, the resources they are afforded, the way cases are referred to the unit, and who is consulted during an investigation can make a significant difference. The Queens CIU will occupy a unique place in the organizational structure of the office. The CIU will report directly to the District Attorney and its leader will be someone with extensive prosecutorial and defense experience. The unit will be separate from Appeals Bureau, which has a fundamentally different goal and process for reviewing cases. The Queens CIU will be staffed full time with investigators, defense attorneys, and prosecutors.
The nature of Conviction Integrity Units - in which members of the District Attorney’s staff are charged with assessing and investigating the work of other staff members, police, and criminal justice system officials for errors that may have resulted in a wrongful conviction - make them susceptible to conflicts of interest and biases that may prevent an objective review. Therefore, it’s essential for the Queens CIU staff to also include voices from outside the District Attorney’s office. Defense attorneys, former exonerees, and community members will hold key roles on the CIU. Community members and organizations will play an important role in the case referral process, ensuring that the unit can cast a wide net. Exonerees and experienced defense attorneys will help provide oversight of the investigation process to prevent biases from influencing decision-making and ensure that the investigation process remains objective and non-adversarial. In addition, at no time will a prosecutor play a role in reviewing a case they were originally involved with.
The Queens CIU will have a broad and flexible scope of cases to review. Cases may be referred to the CIU through a number of channels including outside defense attorneys, the police, the courts, members of the press, individuals claiming innocence (importantly, even those who pled guilty will be eligible), internal audits of cases, family members, and innocence organizations. The Queens CIU will have a broad standard for evidence that will qualify a case for review, and will be willing to re-test physical evidence in a case, especially if the technology to test this evidence has improved since the conviction. Maintaining this broad intake of cases and flexibility will be important to making sure the Queens CIU can investigate as many cases as possible.
The Queens CIU will also have clear, standardized, and publicized criteria for reviewing cases. These include:
New facts discovered that support a plausible claim of innocence
Evidence of a constitutional violation in the original proceeding
Internal audits of evidence or department procedures revealing mistakes or misconduct that warrant a review of all cases affected
New technology that allows for re-testing physical evidence
“Due process” claims such as ineffective counsel, undisclosed evidence, or other practices that created an unfair trial
While flexibility and a wide scope of case intake is important for CIUs, they must also maintain clear and transparent policies so that both outside observers and those petitioning for innocence have faith in their results. The unit will have written internal procedures to standardize how the unit reviews cases and provide avenues for reporting misconduct. In addition, the unit will be transparent and cooperative with those petitioning for their innocence and their counsel. The unit will share exculpatory evidence that it uncovers in a timely manner and will communicate frequently throughout the investigation with the petitioner, explaining the rationale for decisions the unit makes in writing.
In the process of reviewing potential cases, the CIU will inevitably uncover systemic problems in the District Attorney’s office or widespread misconduct that potentially led to wrongful convictions. It will also be the duty of the Queens CIU to bring these problems to the attention of the District Attorney - even when they do not result in an exoneration - to prevent future missteps that could result in wrongful convictions. In this sense the CIU will also act as an internal ombudsman, striving to improve the policies and procedures of units throughout the office.
While District Attorneys are popularly seen as the chief prosecutors in their jurisdictions, a better definition of their role is the chief administrator of the justice system. To that end, a properly functioning justice system should place as significant an emphasis on freeing the innocent as prosecuting the guilty. A Conviction Integrity Unit in Queens is sorely needed, as CIUs in other jurisdictions have done important work exonerating hundreds of innocent defendants in recent years. While CIUs are a fairly recent phenomenon, they represent a shift in the District Attorney’s priorities towards that of creating a truly equitable justice system. Melinda Katz shares that vision for reform and is uniquely qualified to act on that vision and create a Conviction Integrity Unit in the Queens DA’s office.