DA Krasner, Conviction Integrity Unit Release Report on Overturning Era of Wrongful Convictions in Philly
Jane Roh, 215–686–8711, Jane.Roh@phila.gov
PHILADELPHIA (June 15, 2021) — The District Attorney’s Office (DAO) Conviction Integrity Unit (CIU) released the first of what will be regular reports on the work of the CIU, which in fewer than four years has helped secure the exonerations of 20 people in 21 cases. All but one of the convictions were marred by official misconduct committed by prosecutors and/or police, such as withholding exculpatory evidence, coercing false confessions, or committing perjury.
Of the 20 people exonerated under the CIU, created in 2018 and led by Assistant District Attorney Patricia Cummings and District Attorney Larry Krasner, all but two individuals were Black men. In one of the more extreme examples of official misconduct, Christopher Williams, a Black man, was wrongfully convicted of murder in two separate cases, and cleared of all crimes in both cases.
The CIU’s work also includes sentencing review, maintaining the Police Misconduct Database (to help all DAO prosecuting units meet constitutionally required disclosure requirements), and reviewing commutation petitions for people in prison, many of whom are serving overly punitive or unjust sentences meted out decades ago. No prior DA’s administration in Philadelphia has engaged in intense and careful review of troubled convictions and inequitable sentences.
The report, “Overturning Convictions — and an Era,” is available for download here: tinyurl.com/CIUreport.
“When DA Krasner recruited me to come and lead the CIU in Philly, I had some awareness of the challenges I would face in the city that once boasted the nation’s ‘Deadliest DA,’ Lynne Abraham,” CIU Supervisor Cummings said. “What I learned as we got the CIU up and running was nothing short of astonishing: layers upon layers of misconduct sometimes committed by prosecutors and often committed by police — including some who are still on the city payroll or receiving taxpayer-funded city pensions– and dozens of men, overwhelmingly Black and young at the time, caught up in a vicious system that lacked transparency and accountability. I am incredibly proud of the work this unit has accomplished in such a short amount of time, and I am sobered by our ever-growing caseload.”
“Since I persuaded Patricia Cummings to come to the Philly DAO, she and her Conviction Integrity Unit team have made a reality of the prosecutor’s obligation to do justice moving forward and to do justice by correcting injustice in the past. The CIU’s work to date is historic and its broader significance cannot be overstated where trust between law enforcement and communities is broken. Fostering community trust in law enforcement requires that DA and police administrations hold their own accountable for misconduct and for crimes,” DA Krasner said. “Having met and gotten to know wrongfully convicted men like Chester Hollman, Terrance Lewis, Anthony Wright, and so many others, I know the human potential that was lost. That lost potential was caused by an era of criminal justice culture that was reactionary, racist, and de-humanizing in its politics and in its press; a culture that had little regard for facts, science, or truth. Even an adversarial system cannot be adversarial to the truth. And we cannot forget that victims and survivors were profoundly harmed by these wrongful convictions as well. Every innocent person in jail meant the guilty one went free. We are finding our way out of that murky past and this report lights the way.”
The CIU also conducts trainings and presentations to share research and best practices with prosecutors and law enforcement across the country. Active conviction integrity units in jurisdictions like Wayne County, Michigan, release regular reports in the interests of transparency and accountability, and to inform better policies and procedures by police, prosecutors, defense counsel, and courts to address the root causes of wrongful convictions and unjust sentencing and other practices that continue today.
Criminal justice reform leaders praised the many accomplishments of the CIU in less than four years.
“This report shows that the Philadelphia DA’s Office is now gold standard for what a conviction integrity unit should be. By putting an experienced defense attorney at the helm and giving her the independence to report to him directly, Larry Krasner has created an institutional model that allows his CIU to operate without the conflicts of interest and mission that have plagued other CIUs that have relied on prosecutors to police themselves,” said Professor Rachel Barkow, Director of the Center on the Administration of Criminal Law at NYU School of Law. “The results are powerful. The Philadelphia CIU is not just righting wrongful convictions, but also correcting unjust sentences and doing the kind of systemic reviews of misconduct to prevent these injustices from happening in the future. I hope every DA in the country takes note and learns from this.”
“Larry Krasner and Patricia Cummings have worked hard to make the Philadelphia Conviction Integrity Unit one of the most impactful in the country,” added Professor John Hollway, Executive Director of the Quattrone Center for the Fair Administration of Justice at Penn Law. “This report outlines 21 exonerations (and counting) of innocent and/or wrongfully convicted men. Each exoneration sends a message that while our criminal justice system is not perfect, our dedication to the truth and to justice must always be the priority, and that we will do what is right over what is easy. In these cynical times, that’s a breath of fresh air for our communities.
The Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office is the largest prosecutor’s office in Pennsylvania, and one of the largest in the nation. It serves the more than 1.5 million residents of the City and County of Philadelphia, employing 600 lawyers, detectives, and support staff. The District Attorney’s Office is responsible for prosecution of approximately 40,000 criminal cases annually.