Sunday Commentary: A Tale of Two County DAs on Wrongful Convictions…

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By David M. Greenwald

This week, Chesa Boudin, the San Francisco DA, unveiled his plans for a Post Conviction Unit.  At least in structure, it may well be the most groundbreaking in the country—of course, proof will be in the actual pudding, and the structure by Larry Krasner has the benefit of several years of strong results, while the results of Houston and Brooklyn speak for themselves.

Ohio Innocence Project Director Mark Godsey, who was the Vanguard keynote speaker last month, pointed out in his book that Post Conviction Units, whatever you call them, if they are effective they can exonerate far more people than even an Innocence Project.  His book points to the work of Dallas and Brooklyn for example.

In 2019, there were 143 exonerations—87 of them were through Conviction Review Units, according to this report

The problem is that they can also be window dressing.  Yolo County’s unit, which has yet to exonerate a single person, bears that out.

One of the keys is creating a structure that allows the unit to operate independently.  That’s important because it avoids institutional pressures to uphold past convictions.

The San Francisco Post Conviction Unit, at least on paper, has a six-member Innocence Commission which looks as formidable as any I have seen.  Members include: Professor Lara Bazelon, Director of the Criminal & Juvenile Justice and Racial Justice Clinics at University of San Francisco Law School; the Honorable Judge LaDoris Cordell (Ret.); medical expert Dr. George Wood; Executive Director of the Northern California Innocence Project Linda Starr; San Francisco Managing District Attorney Arcelia Hurtado; and SF Deputy Public Defender Jacque Wilson.

They have a range of experience, from a medical expert to the director of the Northern California Innocence Project to a public defender to a judge.

On paper, then, this is a strong unit with a lot of promise.

They will have an important test case, perhaps.  Maurice Caldwell was exonerated in 2011—in fact, he was the Vanguard’s keynote speaker at our first event.  But, while the charges were dropped against Caldwell and another person confessed and said Caldwell had nothing to do with the murder, the San Francisco City Attorney’s office is not convinced.

Caldwell has never been able to get compensation, as Lisa Rea and I discussed with Caldwell and Paige Kaneb of the Innocence Project on a podcast in June.

Mission Local reported in August, “In defending the SFPD, the San Francisco City Attorney is actively fighting in court to maintain that Caldwell remains guilty of murdering a man named Judy Acosta in 1990 in the Alemany Projects and wounding a second man, Domingo Bobila.”

No matter that a judge overturned Caldwell’s conviction 10 years ago and the charges against him were dropped. No matter that there is no new evidence. No matter that another man, Marritte Funches, confessed to the murder in detail and identified his accessory as a man other than Caldwell. In its defense of the city and the SFPD, the City Attorney presses its accusation: Caldwell murdered Acosta and wounded Bobila.

“The presumption of innocence has no place in a civil trial,” argued Meredith Osborn, the chief trial deputy at the City Attorney’s office, in a motion filed on July 14.

John Coté, a City Attorney spokesman, stated flatly: “Caldwell was not exonerated.”

This presents a tricky situation—normally getting people out of prison is the priority, especially now with concerns about COVID.

But turning someone out without giving them the tools to survive is setting people up for failure.  Even a guy like Maurice Caldwell, who has been a model citizen since his release, deserves better than he has received.

Understand that when someone is released from prison after committing a crime they get gate money and access to resources.  People like Maurice, who were not guilty of any crime, get nothing.

This is an egregious injustice that the new body is set up well to get right.

This gets back to our August 13 discussion with Ohio Innocence Project Director Mark Godsey.  He pointed out that to really have independence, you need to bring in people outside of the chain of command, who have no stake in the conviction, and often you want to have former defense attorneys or public defenders.

Larry Krasner, for example, brought in Patricia Cumming, who had successfully run a review unit in Dallas, and also brought in people like Carrie Wood from the Ohio Innocence Project to help out.

Godsey himself understands that a Conviction Review Unit can be a mixed bag.  There are success stories, like Brooklyn’s from which we recently ran our series on their 25 exonerations.

In Houston, Texas: “Prosecutors there freed forty-two inmates on grounds of innocence in 2015 alone. No law school innocence organization, including my own, can come close to matching those numbers.”

That brings us to Yolo County, where you can see both in structure and result—failure.  The people heading up Yolo County’s Conviction Integrity Unit have failed to clear anyone.  And you can see why.  The people heading that unit are: Jonathan Raven, Ryan Couzens, and Melinda Aiello—the number two, three, and four people in the DA’s office.

In fact, instead of attempting to help exonerate people, the DA’s office has fought such claims at every step.  We saw that in the Halloween Homicide case.  We have seen that with Ajay Dev.

Unlike in San Francisco, neither these defendants, nor the more than 14 others we have identified as potential wrongful convictions in this county over the last decade, will have anyone other than DA eyes on their cases.

With such a setup, there is no surprise that, while places like Brooklyn, Philadelphia and Houston among others have exonerated dozens of people, places like Yolo County have exonerated none.

Godsey in his book writes, “The CIUs in Brooklyn and Houston are, of course, a welcome and much-needed addition to the innocence movement. Combined with independent innocence organizations like my Ohio Innocence Project, they provide a blueprint for how we can eventually conquer the problem of wrongful convictions.”

But, he argues, you need a strong organization to make them work correctly.

“(T)he failings of CIUs in other jurisdictions show that success in this area is hard to attain,” he writes. “Many of the other CIUs thus far appear to pay little more than lip service to the problem of wrongful convictions, because the prosecutors in charge seem understandably unable to move past their own psychological barriers to adequately reexamine old cases with a fresh eye.”

The Yolo County DA Jeff Reisig—unlike his counterpart in Santa Clara, Jeff Rosen, who created a CIU with the help of the Northern California Innocence Project—has never taken this issue seriously.

If he had, it wouldn’t be composed of three of his leadership team who have a stake in maintaining the convictions running their unit—they would bring in public defenders or innocence attorneys to help bring integrity and fortitude to the process.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

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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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