District Attorney Sets Up Conviction Review Unit

Dan SmithDistrict Attorney Sets Up Conviction Review Unit

It was good to hear that District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis has decided to start a new unit whose purpose will to be to review cases where someone has been convicted, but, there is now some reason to think they were not guilty.

The new unit will be named the George “Woody” Clarke Conviction Review Unit. I am sure Woody Clarke would be happy. He is a late Judge who had been a prosecutor. He was also one of the most well liked and respected people around the courthouse. When DNA was first being used as evidence in court, he was THE person in San Diego who learned all the science and details of how it worked. In fact, when the Los Angeles D.A.’s needed someone to present the DNA evidence at the O.J. Simpson trial, they called Clarke to do it.

While it is good news our D.A.’s Office is setting up this unit, there are three aspects that are a little troubling.

First, why did it take so long? Every prosecutor’s office in the nation should have one of these units. Prosecutors are not supposed to just be trying to get convictions. They are sworn to seek the truth. That obligation should apply even if they have already gotten a conviction. Every competent person in the legal community knows that some innocent people have been convicted, some even executed. Our awareness of this has only increased with the advent of DNA science and the continued improvements in that field.

Second, it is a shame that only a small group of cases will be reviewed by the new unit. They will only look at serious or violent felonies and only if the person is still in prison. I am sure this is because the two Deputy District Attorneys assigned to the new unit will only be able to review so many cases. But, it does mean other innocent people will remain in prison and those who are out will not have this opportunity to clear their names and records.

Then that leads to the third problem. Why such a tiny unit? We can applaud the concept, but, at the same time, be disappointed in the scope. Our County budget dedicates tens of millions of dollars each year to pursue arrests and convictions. You would think we could carve out more to save innocent people.

We should also keep in mind that the unit will only take action if there is “verifiable” evidence of innocence. The single biggest reason for wrongful convictions in the United States is incorrect witness identification. The work of groups like the Innocence Project and numerous studies have shown that to be true. Eye witnesses are wrong a lot, but, they are also often the most compelling evidence to jurors. In many cases, there will not be any “verifiable” evidence to rely on. So, those innocent people will not get any help.

This reality only reinforces the need to take the standard of “proof beyond a reasonable doubt” so seriously and that no juror should ever vote guilty unless there is no chance the person is guilty.

I am sure Woody Clarke is happy and proud. I bet we could make him more of both if we tried to do even more.

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