- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 29, 2015

Exonerations of the wrongly convicted are at an all-time high thanks in part to the increase in the number of prosecutors’ offices setting up units to investigate claims of innocence — a wave that Washington, D.C., could be poised to ride with the formation of its own investigative unit.

The National Registry of Exonerations recorded 125 exonerations nationwide in 2014, ranging from overturned murder convictions to drug possession charges. The registry credits a recent uptick in the number of “conviction integrity units,” special prosecutorial teams charged with examining convictions that could be based on questionable evidence, with pushing the number of nationwide exonerations to its highest point since the registry began keeping track in 1989.

The number of conviction integrity units nationwide jumped from just three in 2010 to 15 in 2014, according to a National Registry of Exonerations study published Tuesday. Six new units were established in 2014 alone, including the District’s, which is the first unit to be established within a U.S. attorney’s office.

While the number of conviction review units has steadily increased, experts caution that the path to uncovering results can be slowgoing. Conviction integrity units have worked on 93 exoneration cases between 2003 and 2014, with 49 of those exonerations occurring last year, according to the study.

“None of the conviction integrity units that started in 2014 have produced any exonerations thus far,” said Samuel Gross, a University of Michigan law professor and author of the study.

It could be some time before the full effects of the dedicated review team in the District are realized due to the time and resources it takes to investigate wrongful convictions.

“If they are starting at the beginning of looking at cases that come to them, then it might be a year or two,” Mr. Gross said.

U.S. Attorney for the District Ronald C. Machen Jr. announced the formation of the unit in September, noting that prosecutors would focus on older rape and murder convictions in which defendants could offer new evidence like DNA testing that might establish innocence.

In the weeks after the announcement, the office received requests for prosecutors to investigate more than a dozen cases, said spokesman William Miller. However, many of the cases stemmed from convictions that occurred outside the District and, as a result, were beyond prosecutors’ jurisdiction.

Two prosecutors, Assistant U.S. Attorneys James Sweeney and Mark Aziz, are assigned to the unit, and the office has partnered with outside consultants to help develop best practices for avoiding wrongful convictions in the future.

“The process is still in the early going, and so we have no details that we can share about those matters at this time,” Mr. Miller said.

Even without a conviction integrity unit, the District has seen at least a dozen wrongful convictions overturned. The National Registry of Exonerations recorded 13 exonerations in the District between 1990 and 2014. Two men, Cleveland Wright and Kevin Martin, were exonerated of murder and manslaughter charges, respectively, last year in the District.

Establishing such a unit will help build trust between prosecutors and defense attorneys who work on such cases and create an environment in which those who bring forth claims of innocence are taken seriously.

“When you have a prosecutor’s office that is open to the idea that innocent people get convicted and is willing to talk about those cases, you tend to see more exonerations,” said Shawn Armbrust, director of the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project, and a policy adviser to the District’s unit.

Legal experts note that establishing a team to review wrongful convictions doesn’t necessarily mean there will be a flood of overturned cases.

“These are still uncommon events,” Mr. Gross said.

But in some instances, the units have uncovered widespread evidentiary problems that can lead to numerous exonerations over a short period of time.

The Brooklyn District Attorney’s Conviction Review Unit, established in 2011, uncovered widespread misconduct by a police detective that in turn led to seven exonerations last year, according to the exoneration study.

An investigation undertaken by the Harris County District Attorney’s Post Conviction Review Section in Houston, Texas, resulted in 29 drug convictions being overturned last year after prosecutors pushed to get a backlog of drug tests completed by the local crime lab. Prosecutors found cases in which defendants who pleaded guilty were considered a low priority for the lab and, as a result, tests were not completed in a timely fashion. Tests found the alleged drugs seized as evidence in the cases were not actually controlled substances.

The District has seen a string of five exonerations based on faulty forensic analysis conducted at the FBI crime lab, said Mr. Gross, adding that the new conviction integrity unit might turn up others.

“That could happen anywhere, but it’s going to be more concentrated in D.C., because they handle the forensic items for D.C.,” he said.

But as the District’s first dedicated unit gets to work, those who labor to overturn wrongful convictions are eager for results.

“They seem to have good intentions and seem to want to do the right thing. It’s just a matter of how it works in practice,” Ms. Armbrust said. “I think it’s a positive step, but it’s not one of those things that going to solve the problem overnight.”

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