Yolo County District Attorney Jeff Reisig announced on Tuesday that his office has created “a Conviction Integrity Unit to review all post conviction assertions of innocence.” In the press release, the DA wrote, “As the United States Supreme Court recognized in Berger v. United States, the aim of the prosecutor ‘is that guilt shall not escape nor innocence suffer.’”
The release continues, “While the trial and appellate process has significant safeguards to protect individuals, the criminal justice system is a human institution and mistakes are made in a small number of cases. To combat these wrongful convictions, prosecutors and law enforcement agencies throughout the country have broadened their efforts to review previous convictions to ensure that justice is served and that those wrongfully convicted are exonerated.”
In March 2013, the Vanguard called a conviction integrity unit “an idea whose time has come.” Now, a little over a year and a half later, it’s an idea which is coming to Yolo County.
“In order to serve the citizens of Yolo County the District Attorney’s Office has established a Conviction Integrity Unit,” explains the release. “This unit will be headed by an Assistant Chief Deputy District Attorney to review all claims of factual innocence made by persons who have been convicted of crimes.“
The release goes on to explain how the process will work: “The Unit will conduct an initial inquiry to determine whether further review or investigation is necessary. The Unit will review transcripts, evaluate forensic evidence in light of new scientific knowledge, conduct additional forensic tests, interview witnesses, or conduct any other investigation deemed necessary. This Conviction Integrity process supplements the appellate process already available to defendants and is designed to avoid the possibility of an innocent person being punished for a crime they did not commit.
“Defendants, or any other member of the community, claiming that there has been a wrongful conviction should submit their requests in writing to the Yolo County District Attorney’s Office.
“The claim does not need to be in any format or on a claim form, but the request must raise a meaningful claim of ‘actual innocence; of a crime. The request may not be merely an appeal for resentencing, a reweighing of conflicting evidence, or a request for relief from immigration consequences.”
Mr. Reisig stated in the release, “A prosecutor’s role is to ensure that our system achieves justice which includes not only convicting the guilty but also guaranteeing the protection of the innocent. The creation of this Unit helps us to obtain both of these goals.”
Conviction Integrity Unit
The DA’s office provides additional information: “This Unit reviews and investigates claims of innocence raised after a criminal conviction involving homicides, sex offenses and violent crimes. The unit may examine claims of innocence in other types of cases if a significant prison commitment or collateral consequence indicates that an examination of the case is warranted. In addition, the Unit shall be responsible for ensuring that any claim of Prosecutorial Misconduct made during the pendency of any criminal matter is thoroughly investigated and litigated prior to the completion of that pending criminal matter.
“The Unit shall consist of the Assistant Chief Deputy and an assigned Deputy District Attorney. No assigned personnel shall conduct the examination and/or investigation into any matter that he/she was assigned as the primary prosecutor during the pendency of the initial prosecution. Any other Deputy District Attorney assigned to assist in the examination and/or investigation of a conviction integrity case shall not have had responsibility for the initial prosecution of the case.”
They explain their protocol, “All Post-Conviction claims of actual innocence, no matter in what form the claim is raised, shall be forwarded to the assigned Assistant Chief Deputy District Attorney for review. The Assistant Chief Deputy shall insure that the claim is properly documented in [need to explain what lawsuite is] Lawsuite, and that the claim and the file are uploaded into Lawsuite and assigned an entry number.”
They continue, “The Assistant Chief Deputy District Attorney shall review each claim to determine whether any further action or investigation is warranted. If after conducting the initial review a determination is made that the claim does not warrant further investigation, the Assistant Chief Deputy District Attorney shall notify the defendant (or requesting party) and any known counsel that no further action will be taken on the claim. Claims with strong indicia of actual innocence will be investigated by Unit personnel.
“At the conclusion of the investigation, the Assistant Chief Deputy District Attorney shall determine whether all avenues of inquiry have been exhausted and whether based on the investigation there is a plausible claim of innocence. The existence of a reasonable doubt does not necessarily result in a conclusion that the defendant is actually innocent, the conclusion must be that there is clear and convincing evidence that there exists a plausible claim of actual innocence in the case.”
Prioritized will be homicides, sexual assault cases, violent and serious felony cases involving substantial state prison commitments and then, “Other felony cases involving a substantial prison commitment or other significant collateral consequence.”
The DA’s office explains, “While cases where a defendant entered a plea of guilty or no contest will not be excluded from review, as the possibility exists that an innocent defendant may have plead to a crime he/she did not commit to avoid a potential significant sentence. However, these cases require greater scrutiny and the Claim of Innocence initially submitted must be compelling.
“There shall be greater scrutiny when there are claims of actual innocence that cite newly discovered evidence that bears on innocence or that raise claims that have been found to be “red flag” issues such as misidentification, witness recantation, lying by an informant/cooperator, meaningful claims of alibi, or substantial Brady violations that would appear to involve actual innocence.”
The unit will not investigate, “in the absence of other compelling justification, claims where a defendant knew or should have known the basis of his/her current claim at the time of the conviction, or where the defendant now disavows his/her trial testimony and offers a different theory of innocence. In addition, except where there is a compelling showing that a guilty or no contest plea was entered to avoid a more significant sanction, the defendant must have continually maintained his/her innocence from the inception of the case.”
How Conviction Integrity Units Work
While the Yolo County District Attorney and his office do not speak with the Vanguard, the Vanguard last year interviewed Santa Clara Deputy DA David Angel, who runs their conviction integrity unit.
Northern California Innocence Project Executive Director Cookie Ridolfi has been fighting this fight for a long time.
“We’re never going to change the system until the people within it change,” she told the Vanguard in a phone interview last year. “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.”
While other counties have had the concept of conviction integrity, what Santa Clara County did was innovative – they put conviction integrity at the table with all of their other departments.
As David Angel explained, “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.”
The Santa Clara County DA’s office is still a prosecutor first. They are not the Innocence Project.
“We stand by all of our convictions, but if somebody has a concern about one, we’re going to allow them to investigate it,” David Angel told the Vanguard.
“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.”
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.
The devil is in the details and we will have to see how the program is set up in Yolo County. In this case, the bar has been set very high – perhaps too high for the program to have much effect. Yolo County might wish to look at successful programs like Santa Clara to beef up the program.
—David M. Greenwald reporting