A new investigative unit at the county prosecutor’s office will look into claims of innocence by convicted felons. The idea is to reverse miscarriages of justice and boost public confidence in the criminal justice system. Ideastream’s Joanna Richards reports.
Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Timothy McGinty joins a growing number of prosecutors around the country with special in-house review committees looking into wrongful conviction claims.
Felons already have recourse through the court system. And some cases will stay there, if the claim is a procedural one – like whether the accused had adequate counsel. But now, when convicts claim actual innocence based on the facts of the case, they can apply for review by the Conviction Integrity Unit. If they pass review, the prosecutor’s office will file a motion to vacate the verdict.
"The prosecutor is in the best position to investigate these cases because of the resources – and we can help expedite. If there is a valid claim, we are in the best position to look at those and move faster," said Jose Torres, an Assistant County Prosecutor, and head of the Conviction Integrity Unit.
The unit will look specifically at cases with new and credible evidence. Felons will be required to cooperate in certain ways – for example, by waiving attorney-client privilege, freeing defense attorneys to speak to investigators about any aspect of the case.
The Innocence Project is a national organization that works to overturn wrongful convictions. Mark Godsey directs the Ohio wing. He says similar units elsewhere have been a mixed bag, but he’s hopeful about the Cuyahoga County effort.
"You’ll have people who are specifically dedicated to the issue and charged to look into these cases from a perspective of, ‘Could this person be innocent?’ It’s a committee, so it’s not just the same person who worked on the case years before. So hopefully, you’ll get a more neutral and unbiased view of it," he said.
Godsey says what makes or breaks these special review units is whether they have outside perspective. The Cuyahoga unit’s committee is made up solely of prosecutors, but it has an advisory board with a judge and two law professors.
Godsey says these units can also have an important trickledown effect. The experience of digging into wrongful convictions cases can lead to more discussion within a prosecutor’s office about best practices – like avoiding pressuring witnesses too much. And that can lead to fewer wrongful convictions in the first place.