Santa Clara DA’s Conviction Integrity Unit Draws Praise From Reform Advocates

witness-idIn early 2011, then newly-elected Santa Clara District Attorney, Jeff Rosen, created a Conviction Integrity Unit.  Led by prosecutor David Angel, the department was set up to review cases of alleged prosecutorial misconduct and create policies to prevent errors.

In a statement at the time, Mr. Rosen said, “Integrity is central to the Santa Clara County District Attorney’s Office. We will protect defendants’ rights, even as we justly prosecute them. For a prosecutor, the ends never justify the means, we do the right thing, and we do it the right way.”

Two years into the program, the Northern California Innocence Project (NCIP) is honoring the program, along with Jeff Rosen and David Angel, with their Justice Award.

NCIP Executive Director Cookie Ridolfi told the Vanguard in a phone interview that she believes the program is working.

“When they get a case where they think there are questions about, they call us,” she said.  “We work with them, sometimes it goes nowhere.”

However, on more than one occasion it has ended up with an exoneration.

“We’re never going to change the system until the people within it change,” she said.  “What I have tried to do in my work is reach out and work with prosecutors, work with the California State Bar and together identify the problems.  Where we disagree, I make every effort to talk, explain it, and prove it, research it, and with that information it gives us the opportunity to gather information and push for meaningful reform.”

“I’ve been around a long time and I know that change takes a very long time,” she said.  “I don’t expect it to happen overnight but I have seen change that I’m encouraged by.”

Cookie Ridolfi extends high praise to both David Angel, with whom she has worked for a number of years and calls him a man of high integrity, and DA Jeff Rosen.

“As I look at DA’s offices around the state, I think that [Santa Clara] is pretty much at the top of the heap,” she added.

“The reason it is so important for a District Attorney’s office to have a Conviction Integrity Unit is sometimes there’s mistakes made in the criminal justice system,” Jeff Rosen said in 2011 interview at the Berkeley Law School. “It’s a system made up of human beings — from police officers to witnesses to prosecutors, defense lawyers, and judges. And sometimes there are mistakes.”

He added, “I think that it’s very important that just because a mistake may have been made five or ten years ago and someone perhaps was wrongfully convicted or received a sentence that they should not have received, we should go back and fix that. So, I think it’s part of having an ethic in the office of sort of continuous quality improvement.”

David Angel, a veteran prosecutor, was immediately tapped to head the unit.  A Harvard Law Graduate, Mr. Angel already had extensive experience as a reformer within his office, helping to draft the county’s eyewitness-identification protocol, considered by many to be a model across the state.

He also pushed for the county’s policy that recorded all interviews with suspects accused of violent crimes.  He also participated in an internal office investigation that resulted in the exoneration of a man wrongly convicted and sentenced to life in prison for a crime he did not commit.

David Angel told the Vanguard in a phone interview, that versions of this program have actually been around for over a decade and were extended during the tenure of at least three prosecutors, beginning around the year 2000 with a pilot project in which all cases where there were allegations that the wrong person had been convicted would be looked into.

The other goal was to keep up with current best practices to avoid the problems that lead to wrongful convictions in the first place.  The original unit, however, was eliminated due to budget considerations.

However, when Jeff Rosen ran for DA, he promised to not only revive this program but to take it from this pilot project to being a program that was central to the office.

“So instead of being this isolated project,” Mr. Angel told the Vanguard, “it was now part of the executive management in the office.”

Most larger DA’s offices are organized around the District Attorney and a small group of supervisors who head up various units, and what Mr. Rosen did was make Convictions Integrity part of that core group of programs in the office.

Mr. Angel likened it to the notion of ethics, which should in theory underlie all processes. “Similarly, Conviction Integrity is going to have implications on many decisions that come from the DA and you always want the Convictions Integrity Unit to be at that table.”

David Angel described the purposes of the project as both reactive and proactive.

The reactive portion looks at allegations of wrongful conviction and sets up policies for investigating any allegations to see if they have merit.  Some of these are cases that involve the Innocence Project and the DA wants to be transparent and make sure that the investigative efforts are not stonewalled.

“We stand by all of our convictions, but if somebody has a concern about one, we’re going to allow them to investigate it,” he said.

They can also take cases where they get complaints from attorneys and the family and look into whether there are problems with the cases.

At the same time, they differ from the Innocence Project in that they are not simply going to open up a case and start investigating.

“For us, the person has already been convicted by a jury, by a judge, it’s under appeal,” he said.  “We’re looking to see if there’s an allegation that there’s new evidence and if there’s new evidence that hasn’t been presented before, it’s our job to investigate that, to follow it wherever it can go and then make a review to see if the new evidence makes a difference.”

He said that since the pilot program was initiated back in 2000 under a previous DA, they have had five post-conviction exonerations.  One of them happened under the auspices of Jeff Rosen.

The bigger part of their program, however, is more proactive: “What can we do to reduce the risk of this happening in the future?”

He said, “We know not just from the wrongful convictions in our county, but much more importantly from the large body of data that we now have nationwide, there are common causes, there are lessons that can be learned.”

Mr. Angel said that their office is attempting to learn from these lessons, to be able to avoid wrongful convictions in the future.  As these lessons lead to common sense reasonable reform, they hope to embrace that reform.

This approach differs in that “whenever any type of reform is talked about in the criminal justice system, it is talked about in the heat of a current litigation.  In the heat of a current criminal case, each side is locked in combat.”

Neither side has any incentive, under those conditions, to recommend reasonable compromises.  The defense attorneys want to do what they can to throw out the conviction and the prosecutor ends up driven to protect the prosecution of the case.

Eye witness identification is a good example.  Current best practices is to do a double-blind sequential line up.  He said if you are in the middle of a case, the defense attorney will accuse the prosecution of failing to conduct a proper line up and then demand that the judge throw out the whole case on that basis, regardless of the validity of other evidence.

The prosecution is going to argue against that and claim that the identification is fine.

Mr. Angel said that their policy is to litigate those cases the best they can, but at the same time start to examine what the best practice is going forward.

“Just because something meets the constitutionally minimal threshold doesn’t mean that’s the best way to do it,” he said.  “So if we can find a better way to do it, let’s do that going forward.”

David Angel said that they have enacted line up reform, so that whenever there is a line up they now videotape the proceeding.

“If you videotape it, it gives this really valuable evidence to both the defense and the prosecution to be able to evaluate the case,” he said.

“We really believe and have a track record to show, that if you implement these reforms at the front-end, it strengthens the convictions as well as avoids the bad convictions,” he said.  “In other words, it increases the strength of everything you do.”

“We looked at the causes of wrongful conviction, and the area where I studied significantly was the area of prosecutorial misconduct,” Cookie Ridolfi told the Vanguard.

When the program began, NCIP believed that this was a good step forward and that other counties should follow Santa Clara’s lead and implement conviction integrity units.

However, while Ms. Ridolfi still believes that in concept that is a good idea, she urges caution.

“You can have a Conviction Integrity Unit in name, but in practice it means not very much,” she said.  She cited one county that created a Conviction Integrity Unit but would not review cases in which the defendant pleads guilty.

“We know from all of our research that innocent people plead guilty.  There’s really very understandable reasons for that,” she said.  “So a Conviction Integrity Unit that would have a policy like that would to me be not worth much.”

David Angel’s work has drawn the high praise of Ms. Ridolfi.

“I have known him for 20 years,” she said.  “He is a man of great integrity…  Every case, he makes every effort to look at it from all sides and he reaches his conclusions on a fair assessment of everything.  That’s exactly what we need in prosecutors.”

—David M. Greenwald reporting

About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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  1. JustSaying

    Does Yolo County have such a unit? Seems as though these initiatives focus on the right things to improve our justice system. Are annual figures easily available for post-conviction exonerations in all jurisdictions?

  2. Nemesis

    [quote]He added, “I think that it’s very important that just because a mistake may have been made five or ten years ago and someone perhaps was wrongfully convicted or received a sentence that they should not have received, we should go back and fix that. So, I think it’s part of having an ethic in the office of sort of continuous quality improvement.”[/quote]

    The public needs to question why more DA’s don’t willingly go back to fix mistakes made by wrongful convictions or inappropriate sentencing. Unfortunately too many times we read about prosecutors trying to stop the process of overturning wrongful convictions when there is indisputable evidence the person didn’t commit the crime.

  3. Fight Against Injustice

    Just Saying: As far as I know there isn’t an easy place to get post-conviction exonerations by jurisdiction. I think you have to go through cases one at a time. The Northern California Innocent Project filed a report a couple of years ago where they had collected 10 years worth of wrongful conviction cases from California (cases that were either overturned or exonerated). You might be able to find the report on their website.

    I really do like the approach the Santa Clara DA’s office is using. To be proactive in making sure a wrongful conviction doesn’t happen should be the norm for all DA offices, not something unusual.

  4. JimmysDaughter

    “To be proactive in making sure a wrongful conviction doesn’t happen should be the norm for all DA offices, not something unusual.”

    Fight Against Injustice: I strongly agree.
    This was an interesting article. I hope Yolo, Solano and every county will instigate a real conviction integrity unit.

  5. David M. Greenwald

    ” Are annual figures easily available for post-conviction exonerations in all jurisdictions? “

    Yes, there is the National Exoneration Registry ([url][/url]).

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