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OPINION: Why A Conviction Review Unit Is Needed

By District Attorney Jackie Lacey     

In the 165-year history of the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office, the thousands of prosecutors who have stood before judges and juries on behalf of the people have done so with a common purpose – to seek justice and pursue the truth.

The integrity of the courts and our judicial system is not just a lofty ideal. It is a living, working reality.

As the leader of the largest local prosecutorial agency in the nation, my duty is to ensure our nearly 1,000 deputy district attorneys adhere to a strict code of conduct in the fair and ethical pursuit of justice.

I am proud of the work our prosecutors do on a daily basis and the record we have established through the years to protect our community.  Last year, my office prosecuted more than 71,000 felony defendants and 112,000 misdemeanor defendants.

Despite our best efforts, the prosecution of cases is not perfect.  In a few instances, new evidence is discovered after the fact and, on rare occasions, mistakes are found.

Therefore, whenever we receive new credible information that may exonerate a person, the responsibility is on us, as prosecutors, to re-examine the facts and, if appropriate, to vacate a wrongful conviction.

This week, the Board of Supervisors approved funding for a Conviction Review Unit comprised of three experienced deputy district attorneys, one senior investigator and one paralegal.  I am grateful that they share my vision for justice.

This new unit will expand my office’s ability to address credible claims of innocence made by convicted felons in a more timely, efficient and consistent manner.

Just as we are expected to keep pace with advances in forensic science, technology and investigative methods, prosecutorial agencies also must update and formalize the way in which post-conviction claims of innocence are handled.

We must respond whenever we receive new substantial and credible information that the evidence used to imprison someone for a serious or violent felony is not trustworthy.

We must review that information and determine if we remain confident in the conviction.

As prosecutors, we have a legal obligation and an ethical mandate to ensure that the right person is convicted for the crime charged.

Prosecutors assigned to the new unit will be selected by the management team to handle this important responsibility. We will choose experienced trial lawyers who are well-respected by their supervisors, peers and law enforcement.

They will review claims of actual innocence and newly discovered evidence.  These claims may originate from inmates, attorneys or innocence projects.  The requests will be made in writing to the District Attorney’s Office.  This process will not require the filing of any formal court documents.

The Conviction Review Unit will not act as a 13th juror.

If a claim meets the initial criteria, it will move to a second level of review.  At that time, the deputy district attorney, if available, and law enforcement agency that prosecuted the case will be notified.

If the claim passes the second level, a formal investigation will be opened.  A deputy district attorney and investigator will be assigned the case.  They will review trial transcripts and the evidence and interview witnesses.

At that time, the victim’s family will be informed of the review.  We have a legal obligation under the California Constitution to notify crime victims and their families at certain stages of a case, including post-conviction release decisions.

In accordance with Marsy’s Law, my office will be diligent in assuring victims’ rights are upheld and victims’ families are properly notified.

The final presentation will be made to the Conviction Review Committee, which will be a group of managers, much like the Special Circumstance Committee.  It will be led by the Chief Deputy District Attorney.

If the committee decides the office has lost faith in the conviction, my office will seek to have the conviction vacated.

In the past, most findings of innocence came through the formal – and lengthy – appellate court process.  It required the inmate on his or her own or with the help of an attorney to file mountains of legal paperwork.  In that arena, the court is limited in the types of issues it may consider in setting aside a conviction.

The less formal conviction review process will allow us to consider compelling facts outside the established judicial system.  It also will help us ensure that these claims receive the appropriate level of scrutiny and consideration by my office.

The Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office now joins prosecutors from Dallas to Denver, from Manhattan to San Diego, who have established conviction review units.

The first conviction review unit was established in Dallas in 2007.  Since then, approximately 23 units have been launched throughout the nation, including five in these California counties: Santa Clara, San Diego, Contra Costa, Ventura and Yolo.

The new Conviction Review Unit is yet another way that we can make certain that we uphold our mission to protect the public through the fair and ethical pursuit of justice.

My office will not turn away from its duty to look at new credible evidence that suggests a mistake was made.

We will seek the truth without fear to ensure a just result, whether that means letting a conviction stand or freeing a wrongfully convicted person.

This article was published by Los Angeles News Group on June 25, 2015.