Why 2015 was record year for the wrongfully convicted

Conviction review units played major role in exonerations

BY MEGAN HENNEY
AND CHRISTOPER HUFFAKER
TRIBUNE NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON – It sounds like something out of a prime-time TV drama.

Attorneys, with help from new science, debunk old testimonies and theories in cases long closed, finally proving that the person who has maintained his innocence is, in fact, innocent.

Richard Alex Williams of California is shown on Nov. 2, 2015, his first day free after being acquitted for a 1996 murder. After three trials, the first a hung jury, the second convicted him of first degree murder and was then tossed out, he was set free. He spent 18 years in jail. (AUTUMN PAYNE/SACRAMENTO BEE/TNS)
Richard Alex Williams of California is shown on Nov. 2, 2015, his first day free after being acquitted for a 1996 murder. After three trials, the first a hung jury, the second convicted him of first degree murder and was then tossed out, he was set free. He spent 18 years in jail.
(AUTUMN PAYNE/SACRAMENTO BEE/TNS)

But it’s not fiction: It’s a nuanced, sometimes controversial trend that’s becoming more common across the United States every year.

Since 2013, the number of conviction integrity units, a division of a prosecutorial office that works to identify and correct wrongful convictions, has more than doubled in the United States, rising from 12 counties to 26 across the country. To be sure, the number remains low – there are more than 3,000 counties in the United States. But they are having an impact.

Texas had most
In the wave of steadily increasing exonerations – in 2015, more people were exonerated than any other year before – conviction review units played a major role.

Of the 156 exonerations that took place in 2015, a record 60 stemmed from the work of the review units, according to the National Registry of Exonerations, a project by the University of Michigan Law School.

The trend is particularly evident in Texas, a law-and-order state perhaps better known for the high number of convicts that it sentences to death each year. It has the most exonerations by conviction review units of any state, the most exonerations in general and the second highest number of review units.

The idea for a county-level conviction review unit originated in Dallas nine years ago – although a less official but similar effort by the district attorney’s office was already under way in Santa Clara, California – in light of years’ of high-profile exonerations stemming from new DNA evidence.

City’s bad reputation
More than 150 defendants on death row have been exonerated nationwide since 1973, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, a nonprofit based in Washington, D.C., that provides analysis regarding capital punishment. In at least 20 cases, DNA played a substantial role in establishing innocence.

A 2013 University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll showed the majority of Texans believed that death penalties are given wrongfully “occasionally” or “a great deal of the time.”

“Dallas had a bad reputation (for wrongful convictions), really,” said Mike Ware, who was the first director of Dallas County’s review unit.

He now serves as executive director of the Innocence Project of Texas, a nonprofit in Fort Worth that investigates claims of innocence.

But because Dallas had preserved its evidence for an unusually long time – it had DNA from cases that were decades old – it was easier for the unit to investigate defendants’ claims of innocence and, in some cases, to prove they had been wrongfully convicted. “They were starting to get some sort of statewide and maybe even national attention for the DNA exonerations that were coming out of Dallas,” Ware said.

25 years lost
Although the idea was perceived as politically risky – maybe even politically disastrous – at the time, Ware said, the rationale for a unit that reviews convictions caught on across Texas, and eventually across the country. Now, the state is rivaled in the numbers of conviction review units only by New York and California.

Perhaps the primary reason for the popularity of review units in Texas, said Cynthia Alkon, a law professor at the Texas A&M School of Law, is the willingness of the state legislature to review and change laws because of the exonerations.

For instance, in 2011 a man named Michael Morton, who spent nearly 25 years in prison, was exonerated for the murder of his wife after DNA evidence implicated someone else.

The prosecutor in the case was found guilty of prosecutorial misconduct, including withholding evidence, and tampering with evidence and government records.

Michael Morton Act
Nearly two years later, then-Gov. Rick Perry, a Republican, signed into law the Michael Morton Act, which requires prosecutors to keep records of and turn over any evidence to the defense, Alkon said.

“It sounds like a really simple thing that should’ve already been in place,” she said. “But it wasn’t.”

Alkon, who was previously a public defender in California, said she has not seen these types of changes in other states.

“I think they were consciously and critically looking at why these people were being wrongfully convicted,” she said of the Texas legislature.

Eleanor Mueller and John Tompkins contributed to this report.

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