Civil Liberties

Why Prosecutors Should Revisit Their Wins 

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When three Tampa, Florida, police officers were fired for misconduct earlier this year, Hillsborough County State Attorney Andrew Warren put his newly created "conviction review unit" to work. The members pored over 225 closed cases that the officers were involved in, and Warren's office ultimately vacated 17 convictions.

It was a relatively rare move by a prosecutor's office. In less scrupulous jurisdictions, the officers' misconduct might have been concealed under police secrecy laws or the defendants might have been left to challenge their convictions in court, but Hillsborough County is one of the few dozen places in the United States that has a unit dedicated to rooting out bad cases. "In short, we felt that convictions cannot stand based exclusively on the testimony of discredited officers," Warren says.

Conviction review units, also known as conviction integrity units, operate within prosecutors' offices to investigate old cases for errors or misconduct that may have led to a wrongful conviction. The first one started in Dallas in 2007. There are now around 45 across the country, mostly in major cities.

Many district attorney's offices have traditionally operated under a "just win" mentality, measuring their performance by the number of convictions they obtain. Conviction review units are an acknowledgment that public officials can suffer from tunnel vision, confirmation bias, professional ambition, and bureaucratic self-preservation. Left unexamined, these failings can lead police and prosecutors, especially in an adversarial justice system, to dismiss the possibility that they put the wrong person behind bars.

We know that wrongful convictions happen. According to the Innocence Project, there have been 365 DNA exonerations in this country since 1989. Some of the exonerees were awaiting execution. But conviction review units require support and funding—otherwise they're little more than Potemkin projects.

They also need some measure of independence from the larger prosecutorial system. The Hillsborough County state attorney's conviction review unit, for instance, includes a review panel made up of a former Florida Supreme Court justice, a former state appellate judge, and a current appellate judge. Warren says that about half of the conviction review units he's looked at around the country have similar panels.

Another crucial element is buy-in from local law enforcement. "The reality is that we're all doing our jobs because we want to make our community safer and because we believe in justice and fairness," says Warren. "Having innocent people in prison does not advance that mission. They know that, and they recognize that we all make mistakes. We're not perfect, and so just having a mechanism to go back to try to right a wrong that may have occurred is a good thing."

Not all elected prosecutors are so enthusiastic. The Dallas County Conviction Integrity Unit exonerated 30 people between 2007 and 2015 under District Attorney Craig Watkins. Since he lost his re-election bid, however, the only exonerations have been a handful of cases initiated during Watkins' tenure.

The difference between an aggressive conviction review unit and a neglected one is stark. In 2013, Florida resident Eric Wright fired a warning shot at an aggressive ex-girlfriend who burst into his mother's house and refused to leave. Under the state's harsh 10-20-life law for firearm offenses, Wright received a mandatory minimum of 20 years in prison. The trial judge who sentenced him and the appellate judge who upheld that sentence lamented the fact that they had no authority to change it. Even the ex-girlfriend wanted him out of prison.

Wright's attorney approached Jacksonville State Attorney Melissa Nelson's conviction review unit about his case in 2018. The head of the unit suggested Wright file a procedural appeal. Instead of challenging it, Nelson's office then offered him a plea deal to be released on time served.

Although the case was outside the scope of the unit's regular work—Wright's claim was that his punishment was outrageously cruel, not that he was innocent—it was the correct function of a conviction review unit, which should determine not only factual innocence or whether rules were broken but also whether the law was justly applied.

In 2018, there were 151 exonerations in the United States, according to a report by the National Registry of Exonerations. Conviction review units secured 58 of those, even though they only operate in a tiny fraction of the country's roughly 2,300 prosecutors' offices. Imagine how many more people are languishing behind bars for want of government self-reflection.

NEXT: Brickbat: The Kindest Cut

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  2. Two cheers for the review system, but as the article points out, if the review squad isn’t adequately funded and supported it’s little more than the citizen’s review panels that have no real authority and no teeth and fall victim to regulatory capture. Unless the voters get behind a truly independent prosecutor’s office and give the same resources to the public defender’s office, things are not going to change.

    The Hillsborough County state attorney’s conviction review unit, for instance, includes a review panel made up of a former Florida Supreme Court justice, a former state appellate judge, and a current appellate judge.

    How many of these former judges are also former prosecutors and how many are former defense attorneys? In some places, there’s an uproar about elected officials, including prosecutors, being “anti-cop” and fueling “the war on cops”. All I can say is, you’re the ones who started this. If there’s this shocking lack of respect for the law, it really shouldn’t be so shocking. You keep poking people long enough, eventually they get pissed off and fight back.

    1. All of this is based on misguided notions, such as the idea that law enforcement authorities can somehow lack respect for the law, or that there is something unsavory about judges being former prosecutors and working together with them to achieve results that everyone knows are necessary. Were it not for prosecutors becoming judges, for example, the courts might not have been able to produce the important result we fought for so hard here at NYU in our nation’s leading criminal “parody” case. God forbid the “review system” should reach a case of this sort, touching on so many reputations! True, the former-prosecutor judge in the case ended up committing suicide, but she very skillfully avoided discussing the so-called “constitutional” issues raised by the “free speech” perpetrator, and a good portion of the faculty here remembers her dearly for this effort of hers on our behalf. See the documentation at

      https://raphaelgolbtrial.wordpress.com/

  3. These units could be fully funded by redirecting ALL asset forfeiture funds to that unit, at least until asset forfeiture without conviction is ruled unconstitutional.

  4. How about instead of qualified immunity, we actually hold police and prosecutors personally responsible for their actions and outcomes? If in the rush to arrest and convict them put the wrong person behind bars, then, once exposed, they have to serve out the sentence of the exonerated innocent victim?

  5. In 2013, Florida resident Eric Wright fired a warning shot at an aggressive ex-girlfriend who burst into his mother’s house and refused to leave. Under the state’s harsh 10-20-life law for firearm offenses, Wright received a mandatory minimum of 20 years in prison.

    Why was he even convicted of anything? Had he shot the ex-girlfriend under the stand your ground law and claimed self-defense, he would have never been convicted of any wrongdoing. Do the “right thing” and NOT SHOOT an intruder, get prison. Do the “right thing” and SHOOT an intruder and have the law protect you (as it should).

    1. Also, don’t stick it in crazy.

    2. Given that he was sentenced to the 20 in 10-20-life, my guess is that he had a prior felony and was stripped of his right to be armed at all. Not knowing his history, I don’t have an opinion about whether that was appropriate.

      1. Nope. When the story was reported locally it was made clear he had no prior criminal record. Florida’s 10-20-Life law was “use a gun-10 yrs, shoot a gun-20 yrs, Shoot someone-25 to Life”.
        Also, law was repealed for certain cases like Wright’s, but the court ruled the new changes were not retroactive.
        Story also makes clear that his ex was bigger than him. FWIW.

        1. Wow, that’s a crazy structure. Thanks for the clarification.

  6. “We know that wrongful convictions happen.”

    Yes, they do. More often than people think. The thing is, I can’t remember ever hearing of a case where the prosecutor was willing to just admit the state’s error. Instead, they always seem to double down, fighting tooth and nail to keep the conviction from being reversed. This, no matter the evidence.

    If they won’t back down when someone like the Innocence Project tells them they’ve made a mistake, I can’t see any prosecutors reversing themselves voluntarily.

    1. Did you read the article? 45 prosecutors are doing exactly that – reversing themselves voluntarily. Yes, it’s only 45 out of 2300 – but even that small number directly contradicts your claim that none will.

  7. Even better, switch prosecutors frequently, and give them as much credit for exposing the misbehavior of their predecessors as for getting new convictions.

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  9. “In 2018, there were 151 exonerations in the United States, according to a report by the National Registry of Exonerations. Conviction review units secured 58 of those, even though they only operate in a tiny fraction of the country’s roughly 2,300 prosecutors’ offices. Imagine how many more people are languishing behind bars for want of government self-reflection.”
    I can’t imagine this, unbelievable.

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