LA District Attorney Launches Wrongful Conviction Unit, Immediately Flooded with Nearly 1K Cases

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Jackie Lacey, who became the first Black person elected Los Angeles county district attorney in 2012, has established a unit to look into wrongful convictions. And according to news reports, the unit has been flooded with 730 cases in the first nine months.

A KPCC article said that before the establishment of the wrongful convictions team, prisoners who wanted to challenge their sentences had to rely on the work of Loyola Law School’s Project for the Innocent.

Loyola law professor Laurie Levenson said she was frustrated with how slow the process was moving.

Jackie Lacey
Jackie Lacey

“I think the DA’s heart is absolutely in the right place. I think the problem has been getting the unit up and going and understanding how these decisions will be made,” she said. “On our end, that’s a bit frustrating ’cause we have cases that we want resolved today.”

Ken Lynch, assistant head deputy for the Post-Conviction Litigation and Discovery Unit, told KPCC his team is hoping to use DNA evidence to free innocent people.

“We’re reviewing types of evidence in which we can obtain DNA from in a variety of cases. We’re looking at cases in which there’s an argument the science has changed and therefore the conviction is no longer valid, specifically in arson cases and shaken baby syndrome cases,” he said.

According to KPCC, 213 cases are currently ready for review. Thirteen cases have been assigned for follow up, 42 have been rejected and two cases have been assigned for more investigation.

Lacey is following the examples of district attorneys around the country who have established wrongful conviction units to look into past cases. In 2007, former Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins, the first Black person elected to the position, established what has gone on to become the nation’s longest-standing conviction integrity unit. According to the National Registry of Exonerations, the Dallas unit has secured 25 exonerations. The team’s exploits were documented in the reality show Dallas DNA.

According to The Associated Press, Sam Gross, editor of the National Registry of Exonerations, said wrongful convictions units in Harris County, Texas and Brooklyn, N.Y. where part of teams around the county that exonerated a record 149 people in 2015.

The Rev. William Barber, president of the North Carolina NAACP, has called on Gov. Pat McCory and Attorney General Roy Cooper, his opponent in the governor’s race, to set up similar units to look into wrongful convictions in his state.

“This is what happens when a system is infected and infested with racial class bias,” said Barber at a press conference for Kalvin Michael Smith and Dontae Sharpe, two North Carolina men who claim they have been wrongfully convicted. “And the only way to stop it is to deal with it, have grown-up conversations, free the innocent people.”

In the National Registry of Exonerations’ 2015 report, Gross said they found prosecutorial misconduct in 40 percent of exonerations. However, he believes the problem is a lot more widespread than reported.

“Misconduct by its nature is hidden,” said Gross in a Guardian article. “We’re always going to be under-reporting it.”

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