WASHINGTON (NNPA) —U.S. Attorneys across the nation are professional prosecutors, making sure criminals are locked up for their crimes. Beginning this fall, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia will take on a new and very different role as it turns its attention to those convicted of crimes they did not commit.
It will be the first time any of the nation’s 93 presidentially-appointed federal prosecutors has taken up this cause.
The Convictions Integrity Unit will re-evaluate violent felony cases in which defendants can supply sufficient, new evidence that warrants a reconsideration of the conviction, especially DNA or biological evidence that can prove innocence.
The National Registry of Exonerations, a joint project between the University of Michigan Law School and the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University School of Law, compiles information on all known exonerations since 1989, with convictions beginning in the late 1950s.
Florida, California, Illinois, New York, and Texas have the highest rates of wrongful convictions, and according to the registry, 1,467 people – 46 percent of them Black – have been exonerated since 1989. This year alone, 81 people have been cleared; (49 of them are African American).
On average, these men and women are imprisoned for at least a decade before their convictions are overturned and their records expunged.
“There’s nothing to suggest that the rate of false convictions is slowing down, at all,” says Samuel Gross, law professor at the University of Michigan, and editor and co-founder of the National Registry of Exonerations.
Together, murder and sexual assault convictions account for 60 percent of the registry’s exonerations. The high rate of homicide in Black communities is reflected in both conviction and exoneration rates; but in the case of the Black men who have been wrongfully convicted of sexual assault, a discrepancy emerges.
“Of the approximately 250 people exonerated for adult sexual assault, a majority are African American, over 60 percent. That’s way higher than their rate of imprisonment [for sexual assault],” Gross says. “Among those exonerated, the African Americans are primarily Black men convicted of raping White victims. And their exonerations are based on misidentifications…because cross-racial identification is notoriously more difficult. This is especially true of White people.”
For 80 percent of Black men wrongfully convicted of sexual assault, mistaken witness identification was one the factors that led to exoneration. And these cases take longer to review and overturn.
In the last decade, several conviction integrity units have sprung up in state and district attorneys’ offices across the country, beginning with Dallas County in 2007. There are also several universities and organizations dedicated to assisting the wrongly convicted through DNA testing, such as the National Innocence Project or The Exoneration Initiative in New York.
But this unit in Washington is unique.
Most crime is tried at the state level, unless it overlaps with federal law and the U.S. Attorney in that jurisdiction decides to prosecute on behalf of the United States. Because Washington has no state-level justice system, both its local and federal crimes are tried in federally run courts. This unit expects to handle primarily local cases, but possibly some federal cases as well. Thus, it may be the first institution within the federal government to examine federal felony cases in search of the innocent.
“The U.S. Attorney’s Office for D.C. handles local crime in D.C. as well as federal crimes. In other places, all sorts of things can be in local court but almost none of these are federal crimes, except in D.C.,” Gross says. “Also, because it’s a federal office, there are more resources they have command of…so they’re capable of doing a more thorough job. [This Office] has more influence than U.S. Attorney’s Offices anywhere else.”
The U.S. Attorney’s Office for Washington first turned its attention to possible wrongful convictions following the discovery of faulty testing and mismanagement within an FBI forensic lab that occurred during the 1980s and 1990s. Over four years, the Office sifted through thousands of FBI case files, reviewing Washington cases involving hair or fiber evidence processed by the FBI between 1980 and 2000.
Five men were exonerated as a result of this initial investigation. Each had already served approximately 30 years in prison.
Following the last of these exonerations, the Attorney’s Office announced the creation of a permanent Convictions Integrity Unit for the District of Columbia. The unit is part of the Special Proceedings Division, which already handles all post-conviction matters for Washington. A Conviction Integrity Committee of internal prosecutors and vetted defense attorneys will choose and review eligible cases, and will create prosecutor training recommendations to prevent future wrongful convictions.
The creation of a Convictions Integrity Unit in the District of Columbia could have widespread legal implications, but it is still unclear what these implications might be.
“Although wrongful convictions remain a rare phenomenon, their consequences are tragic—for the defendants involved, for the victims of the crimes that remain unsolved, and for the community we work every day to protect,” said U.S. Attorney Ronald C. Machen Jr. in a statement. “As prosecutors, our goal is not to win convictions, but to do justice.”