By David M. Greenwald
San Francisco, CA – It was just in April when now former DA Chesa Boudin announced that Joaquin Ciria had been exonerated 32 years after being wrongly convicted of killing Felix Bastarrica.
Chria, 61, was the first one reviewed by the Innocence Commission since its formation. The court vacated his conviction and the District Attorney’s Office dismissed the case against him.
In Oklahoma last month, Republican Representative Kevin McDugle held a press conference to proclaim Richard Glossip, who is set to be executed, innocent.
“The investigative report confirmed in my mind that we do have an innocent man on death row,” McDugle said. “In my opinion, this entire case against Richard Glossip was manipulated by the detective in charge, and that Richard Glossip has now been behind bars because of the gross misconduct of the DA’s office and the investigation.
“In Oklahoma, we don’t seek convictions, we seek justice,” he said.
Over the years, it would seem one area where most can agree—there is no public safety value to keeping innocent people behind bars. But in San Francisco on Friday, two days after telling the Chronicle that she supported the Innocence Commission and it wasn’t going to be interfered with, newly-appointed DA Brooke Jenkins disbanded the Innocence Commission created under Chesa Boudin and fired its liaison.
Supporters of the Innocence Commission had tried to be protective. Supervisor Dean Preston and representatives for Supervisor Hillary Ronen jointly introduced a resolution at the Board of Supervisors this week urging newly-appointed District Attorney Jenkins to preserve the commission which had operated in partnership with the University of San Francisco (USF) School of Law’s Racial Justice Clinic.
The commission took a “unique approach to reviewing and investigating potential wrongful conviction cases. 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.”
“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 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.
Despite its short time in existence, the Innocence Commission re-investigated the case of Joaquin Ciria, who was exonerated by the District Attorney based on the Commission’s recommendation after Ciria spent 32 years in prison for a murder he did not commit. Ciria was released in April 2022 and spoke at the press conference via telephone in support of the work of the Innocence Commission. The Innocence Commission made a recommendation in a second case, and a third case is currently pending.
“Three months ago, Joaquin Ciria, a man who spent more than three decades behind bars for a murder he did not commit, was exonerated due to the work of the San Francisco District Attorney’s Innocence Commission,” stated Supervisor Hillary Ronen. “Lara Bazelon and her team work tirelessly to help overturn wrongful convictions and give those who thought they might die in prison a chance to go home. As the Supreme Court continues to claw away at our civil rights and liberties, it’s crucial that we keep the Innocence Commission intact as a safeguard to the administration of justice”
Commission members currently include Judge LaDoris Cordell (Ret.), Chief Attorney for the SFDA Post Conviction Unit Arcelia Hurtado, Deputy Public Defender Jacque Wilson, Dr. Michael Meade, and USF Professor Lara Bazelon, who bring to their work a wide range of professional experience as well as diversity across race, ethnicity, and gender.
“On behalf of the Commission, we want to express our deepest appreciation to Supervisor Preston, Supervisor Ronen, and 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 the five of 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.”
Preston said the board will take up the issue still this week and expects it to garner a lot more attention now that the DA has acted.
The resolution called for the Board to urge “the District Attorney’s Office to allow the Innocence Commission to continue its crucial and trailblazing work with the Post-Conviction Unit, and allow the Post-Conviction Unit to continue its related resentencing and conviction review work;” and to “the Innocence Commission’s current charter and membership to ensure the Commission continues to function effectively, independently, and with integrity.”