By Barry Scheck, Professor of Law and Founder of the Innocence Project and Miriam Aroni Krinsky, Executive Director of Fair and Just Prosecution
With the input of national leaders and experts, Fair and Just Prosecution (FJP) has created a set of fundamental principles and best practices for offices to consider in formulating policies that will promote accountability and ensure the integrity of past convictions. These principles are intended as a blueprint for 21st Century Prosecutors seeking to raise the bar and embrace a gold standard for Conviction Integrity Review. Check out FJP’s Conviction Integrity and Review Statement of Principles to learn more.
When Huwe Burton was just 16-years old he came home to find his mother brutally murdered in their Bronx apartment. But instead of being given the space to grieve and process the murder of a loved one, Huwe found himself fighting a battle for his own life that wouldn’t end for another 19 years.
Police immediately focused on Huwe as a suspect, a focus that never shifted even when there were other obvious leads. To confirm they were right, the police interrogated Huwe for hours, until finally, in a sleep-deprived and traumatized state, Huwe confessed to his mother’s murder. Hours later, Huwe recanted his confession and later testified in his own defense at trial, but those protestations of innocence were to no avail. The judge refused to permit expert testimony about the science of false confessions and Huwe was convicted and lost 19 years behind bars before his exoneration in the Bronx this past January.
Huwe’s sorry is horrific, but sadly it isn’t an anomaly. Wrongful convictions are shockingly common. Roughly 2,480 people have been exonerated — representing over 21,800 years wrongly lost behind bars. These startling numbers exhibit the glaring failures of our system and the vital need for a mechanism for prosecutors to examine past convictions where there are concerns of actual innocence or violations of due process that undermine the integrity of the conviction.
Conviction Integrity or Review Units (“CIU” or “CRU”) address this need — and are a growing best practice. CIUs are housed in prosecutors’ offices around the nation and are tasked with investigating potential wrongful convictions.
Since 2002 around 45 CIUs have been created across the United States. And approximately 344 miscarriages of justices have been identified and remedied because of the diligent work done by these units, often in partnership with local Innocence Projects.
These units play a vital role in promoting justice, restoring public trust, and ensuring public safety — but they still face challenges. Many are poorly staffed, operate on a narrow mandate and only review cases in limited circumstances, or struggle to implement the transparency needed to restore public trust.
As CIUs grow in number, and are becoming a recognized best practice, we are at a pivotal moment in time when the bar can and should be raised higher. Elected prosecutors have the ability to move from “good to great” and strive to implement a gold standard for conviction review. Indeed, that is the essence of a prosecutor’s job to advance the pursuit of justice.
With this objective in mind, Fair and Just Prosecution(FJP), in partnership with experts on conviction review, has developed a set of fundamental principles to ensure that CIUs live up to their potential of promoting a system that operates with fairness and integrity. The concepts and best practices delineated in FJP’s Statement of Principles include:
- CIUs should be independent and led by a respected senior lawyer who reports directly to the District Attorney.
- CIUs should not be part of the appellate unit because of the inherent role of appellate units to defend convictions.
- CIUs should investigate claims of actual innocence, but also have a broad mandate to review any case with integrity issues, including violations of due process and law enforcement misconduct.
- CIUs should not preclude review of convictions simply because they are based on a guilty plea, have an appeal pending, or the defendant has served his or her sentence.
The Brooklyn District Attorney’s CRU recently issued its 25th exoneration since 2014. Within the purview of that office’s unit are cases of alleged actual innocence as well as cases where facts have been found that undermine the integrity of a conviction. In its most recent case, the Brooklyn CRU determined that the individual who had been convicted did not receive a fair trial because the evidence was unreliable — regardless of whether the evidence conclusively showed actual innocence. And in an effort to advance transparency, the Brooklyn DA’s office released a public report discussing the errors that occurred and the findings that led the CRU to believe that there was a denial of a fair trial.
This transparency is what communities can and should expect. Just as we can and should expect the report’s discussion of how the case can serve as a teachable moment — and specific actions the Brooklyn DA’s office can and will take to learn from the case to avoid wrongful convictions in the future.
A prosecutor’s duty to pursue justice does not end at the point of conviction. CIUs can help us move forward and remedy the past failures of our criminal justice system. They play a critical role in ensuring that we reform a broken system that has resulted in too many innocent individuals such as Huwe spending precious moments behind bars for crimes they did not commit or produced convictions so rife with errors they raise questions about whether justice was, in fact, done.
A new generation of DAs are committed to reimagining what it means to be a prosecutor in the 21stCentury. CIUs — and in particular CIUs that meet the gold standard, conform to the Statement of Principles, and set the bar high — are long overdue and an integral part of the pursuit of “justice for all” that is woven into the fabric of our nation.