In the Conviction Review Unit, the work prosecutors perform may seem a bit different, but the commitment to justice is exactly the same.
The unit, created by District Attorney Jackie Lacey, is responsible for reviewing claims of actual innocence and newly discovered evidence from inmates, attorneys and innocence projects.
Nearly 1,500 claims have been submitted to the unit since it began operation in October 2015. Most do not meet the criteria for review, which requires that the convict still be in custody, that the crime is violent and serious and that there is new credible evidence of innocence.
After Robert Grace, the unit’s deputy-in-charge, conducts an initial review, he assigns claims meeting the criteria to the unit’s three experienced trial prosecutors for a more in-depth look.
Many of these cases are old, requiring some of the same skills used to investigate a cold case. Deputy district attorneys may work with the unit’s two full-time investigators to try to locate new witnesses or re-interview those whose testimony may have changed over time. They also may ask for further scientific investigation if there is DNA or ballistic evidence.
Each of the unit’s prosecutors currently is working on 25 claims. That number may increase as the office in December expanded its review criteria to include confessions made by juvenile offenders and guilty pleas.
To date, two claims have resulted in murder convictions being vacated.
“The standard by which we judge our work is not by the number of claims that we review that result in exoneration,” said Brian Schirn, head deputy of the office’s Post-Conviction Litigation and Discovery Division, “but by the satisfaction of knowing that every case we review has gone through a rigorous process where we have asked the question: ‘Was the right thing done here?'"