By David M. Greenwald
Woodland, CA – Earlier this week, the Yolo County DA’ s Office put out a tweet that stated, “A prosecutor’s role is to ensure that our system achieves justice which includes not only convicting and sentencing the guilty appropriately, but also guaranteeing the protection of the innocent.”
In a press release, the DA’s office noted that they continue to support a Conviction and Sentencing Review Unit.
“The focus of this Unit is to review post-conviction assertions of innocence, to clear records of individuals wrongly accused of crimes, and to recall and modify state prison sentences to ensure a just result. The Unit, initially called the Conviction Integrity Unit, was first launched in Yolo County in 2014,” the DA’s office said.
While the unit reviews and investigates claims of innocence raised after a criminal conviction, they have added functions to re-evaluate sentences of individuals serving time in state prison.
In partnership with For the People’s Hillary Blout and Professor Jack Chin at the UC Davis Law School, the DA’s office is starting to reevaluate prison sentences that no longer “serve the interests of justice.”
Conviction review units have popped up all over the nation as DA’s offices have belatedly recognized the epidemic of wrongful convictions.
In his book, Blind Injustice, Ohio Innocence Project director Mark Godsey noted that conviction review units have the capacity to exonerate many people. For instance, in Brooklyn, the unit created by the late Ken Thompson exonerated 20 inmates in just its first two years of operation. Meanwhile, the CIU in Houston freed 42 inmates in 2015 alone.
Writes the professor, “No law school innocence organization, including my own, can come close to matching those numbers.”
While he describes them as “welcome and much-needed addition(s) to the innocence movement,” he also warns “the failings in other jurisdictions show that success in this area is hard to attain.”
Instead, he says “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 stats are telling. In 2015, 58 of the 149 exonerations in the US came from CIUs. But Professor Godsey warns that “58 exonerations came from the small group of CIUs that have proven to be effective.” He suggested “if every major city in the United States had a CIU as effective as the ones in Brooklyn and Houston, it would be a complete game changer.”
So, what about in Yolo County?
The Vanguard has identified 14 likely wrongful convictions that have occurred since 2006. How many wrongfully convicted people has the Yolo DA’s Office freed? Zero.
In fact, in some of the most prominent cases, the DA’s office continues to actively fight.
One of those, Justin Gonzalez, has had his conviction thrown out by the appellate court. In that case, there is evidence that the prosecution team, led by DA Jeff Reisig himself, failed to turn over potentially exculpatory evidence. The trial court let the conviction stand, but an appellate court earlier this year overturned the conviction and now the DA’s office will have decisions to make in light of additional evidence that has emerged in that case.
Then there is the case of Ajay Dev. In 2009, Dev was sentenced to 378 years in prison. However, the appellate and habeas attorneys have presented evidence that the pretext audio was mistranslated and that in real time the complaining witness admitted to others she had fabricated the charges.
The evidentiary hearing in this case began in 2019, and has continued for years now, with the DA’s office not only fighting it every step of the way, but actually using the case in their reelection campaign. A $500 contribution from Dev’s brother to Reisig’s opponent became evidence that the candidate was taking money from convicted sex offenders and child rapists.
In May, Ryan Couzens, who ostensibly heads up the conviction integrity unit, filed a motion that alleged a conspiracy: “Mr. Dev needs a new plan. The People believe it is now Mr. Dev’s current strategy to delay the taking of any further evidence (or at least the apparently damaging evidence) in the hope that DA candidate Cynthia Rodriguez wins the upcoming election occurring in three weeks.”
One of the important best practices is to separate a conviction review unit from the normal functions of the office in order to gain a measure of independence. Here, we see Ryan Couzens not only in charge of the unit, but also in charge of defending the conviction of Ajay Dev.
And not just Ajay Dev—we have seen the DA’s office attack the constitutionality of SB 1437, which is the felony murder reform. Filing those writs were Ryan Couzens. He has also fought several SB 1437 petitions, including at least two in probable wrongful conviction cases involving the Halloween Homicide, and the Greg Zielesch conviction for the death of CHP Officer Andy Stevens in 2005.
How you can have the same prosecutor who heads up the conviction integrity unit also be in charge of fighting to preserve convictions seems to be part of the problem.
The DA’s office has fared better on AB 2942—the look-back mechanism. Perhaps it’s because they are partly relying on Professor Chin and his sentencing clinic at King Hall at UC Davis.
“In this clinic, students learn about basic sentencing law and review files of inmates who are in state prison as a result of Yolo County convictions,” the press release stated. “Students, under the direction of Professor Chin, assess eligible individuals and make recommendations to the District Attorney’s office as to which inmates should be considered for a reduced sentence.”
The district attorney then determines if the length of sentence no longer serves the interests of justice and requests resentencing for that person. To date, this law has been used to reduce the sentences of more than a dozen individuals sentenced to state prison from Yolo County.
They have a long way to go, but that’s not a bad start on resentencing. Unfortunately, since 2014, they have failed to uncover a single wrongful conviction, even as some of those cases are making their way through the court system.