By David M. Greenwald
San Francisco, CA – Days after appointed DA Brooke Jenkins fired the liaison to the Innocence Commission, Arcelia Hurtado, and various other Post-Conviction Unit attorneys, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors unanimously called on District Attorney Brooke Jenkins to preserve the independent Innocence Commission established in 2020 under former District Attorney Chesa Boudin.
“It felt important to formalize the board’s support for the commission, which is really a unique collaboration between the San Francisco District Attorney’s office and independent experts,” said Supervisor Dean Preston who, along with Supervisor Hillary Ronen, introduced the resolution last week. “It’s to be a very successful model for addressing wrongful convictions.”
In April of this year, the Innocence Commission helped exonerate Joaquin Ciria, who was imprisoned for over 30 years for a murder he did not commit.
On Tuesday, Preston told his colleagues, “Earlier this year, the Innocence Commission helped exonerate Joaquin Ciria, who spent 32 years, 32 years behind bars for a murder that he did not commit. Mr. Ciria had unsuccessfully challenged his conviction throughout the years.”
He explained, “But the criminal legal system in this country and in the city is ultimately set up to preserve convictions, not to vacate them and without the innocence commission’s assistance investigation, tireless work and recommendations, and the partnership with the district attorney’s office, Mr. Ciria would no doubt have spent many more years imprisoned and fighting to be free despite being innocent.”
In fact, prior to the formation of the Innocence Commission in September 2020, the San Francisco District Attorney’s Office had an internal Conviction Integrity Unit whose purpose was to review potential wrongful conviction cases. That unit operated for several years but did not exonerate a single person throughout its existence.
“After the District Attorney set up the commission in 2020, they looked at every piece of evidence in my case. I had prayed so long for this to happen,” stated Ciria. “All I wanted was for my name to be cleared, to see my son and my family members again outside of prison, and to take back my life.”
Co-sponsor Hillary Ronen added, “Like Mr. Ciria in California, there have been 279 known wrongful convictions since the national registry of exonerations began tracking them in the late 1980s, costing taxpayers and estimated $221 million and innocent people, a combined total of 2,173 years of their lives.”
She continued, “This is a problem that continues to plague us. And for the first time in San Francisco, we have this really innovative commission that is headed up by an incredibly renowned and talented set of attorneys that are making sure that there are no women and men sitting in jails in San Francisco or the Bay Area that are innocent.”
Last week Innocence Commission liaison Arcelia Hurtado was fired. Many are concerned this is a prelude to disbanding the commission altogether.
Supporters of the Innocence Commission had tried to be protective.
The Vanguard spoke with Supervisor Preston on Friday.
Preston called it a “devastating blow to have the sole liaison from the DA’s office get fired. It just sends the wrong message entirely. It should be an independent commission here that we’re preserving no matter who’s in office.”
He noted, “The whole idea here was to set up a commission that the DA’s office participates in, but that is predominantly independent folks that weren’t part of convicting. They weren’t part of the office that convicted the person.”
Preston called the shift in direction “totally unnecessary, unprovoked, divisive and counterproductive.”
Supervisor Preston added that “it doesn’t make sense from a policy perspective.”
He said while he knew a new appointee would bring a different perspective on issues like low-level street crime and drug dealing, “I think that was expected.”
He said, “But it’s not a given that someone’s going to come in and try to interfere with the work of the Innocence Commission.” He noted, “There are plenty of people who have a much more conservative approach to criminal justice issues, but who still value and see the importance of looking at where the system convicts someone who’s innocent.
“Plenty of people have championed Innocence Commissions who don’t have Chesa Boudin’s politics,” Preston added.
The future remains uncertain, despite Brooks’ claims that she supports the body.
Ronen pointed out on Tuesday, “It is unclear whether or not (Hurtado’s) position will be replaced. But my worry, and what I think is deeply important is that we cannot piecemeal or dismantle this commission, or even worse strip it of its integrity, its transparency, its independence, and really leave a former shell of itself. That’s what we’ve had in the past. That’s what we haven’t had over the past couple of years.
“Regardless of politics, if we truly believe in justice, we have to include justice for people who are wrongfully convicted or imprisoned by our system,” stated Preston. “The Innocence Commission has proven that it can fairly and efficiently do the difficult work to address harms perpetrated against individuals on behalf of the People, and we should be doing everything in our power to make sure it can continue its crucial work.”
The San Francisco District Attorney’s Innocence Commission currently operates in partnership with the University of San Francisco (USF) School of Law’s Racial Justice Clinic. The independent commission also has its own charter, a diverse membership, and a mandate to seek truth and vindicate justice by reinvestigating colorable claims of wrongful conviction and making written recommendations to the District Attorney. Under the current charter, the District Attorney gives great weight to the Innocence Commission’s recommendations but retains final discretion on all cases.
“On behalf of the Commission, we want to express our deepest appreciation to the Board of Supervisors for recognizing the crucial importance of our work–work that is painstaking, complicated, and offered pro bono in service of the District Attorney’s duty to see that justice is done,” said Professor Lara Bazelon, the Innocence Commission’s Chair. “It is an honor for us to serve on the Commission and that’s what we want to continue to do because there are more wrongfully convicted people whose claims need to be heard by independent and fair-minded experts.”