timberland uk boots Cases show how better science exposes flaws in criminal justice system
At a November 2017 press conference in Simi Valley, Special Assistant District Attorney Michael Schwartz, who oversees the conviction integrity unit, talks about the evidence that pointed to wrongfully convicted Craig Coley’s innocence.(Photo: MEGAN DISKIN/THE STAR)Buy PhotoProsecutors say the DNA evidence that recently overturned a Simi Valley double murder conviction that stood for nearly 40 yearsis a stark reminder about why they continue to review old cases.
Craig Coleywas released from prison in November afterSimi Valley police uncovered new DNA evidence when the agencyreopened the murder investigationin 2016. He was ultimately exonerated of the November 1978 killings of his ex girlfriend and her young son. He was pardoned by Gov. Jerry Brown.
The DNA technology that was used to free Coley was not around when he was being investigated. The scientificadvancementsprompted somedistrict attorney’s offices to create conviction integrity units to review cases that may have had similar outcomes.
Ventura County launched its unit in October 2012, and it had a hand in freeing Coley.
“In Ventura County, the DNA exonerations nationwide have been an eye opener for us,” said Special Assistant District Attorney Michael Schwartz, who oversees the unit.”It’s not just a theoretical possibility. That’s humbling as a prosecutor to realize that.”
Read more: In first trip back to Simi Valley, wrongfully convicted man sets historic record right
In light of Coley’s exoneration,a training day for prosecutors is planned this monthso they can review overturned cases and learn how to avoid those mistakes, Schwartz said.
Schwartz, who has been a prosecutor since 1979,is one of four prosecutors assigned to look into written claims of factual innocence, a legal term thatmeans there is no probable cause to believe a defendant is guilty, he said.
Buy PhotoCraig Coley visited the Simi Valley Police Department Wednesday. Coley was wrongly convicted of the Simi Valley murder of his former girlfriend and her young son in 1978 but was pardoned by Gov. Jerry Brown just before Thanksgiving and released from prison. (Photo: JUAN CARLO/THE STAR)
Nonprofits like the Innocence Project, founded in 1992, were formed toexonerate wrongfully imprisoned people, thanks to the new science.
Alex Simpson, associate director of the California Innocence Project, said the emergence of these conviction integrity units is a “fairly recent phenomenon” and is, hypothetically, a step in the right direction.
However, theefficacyof these groups depends on the philosophy behind the organization and the resources dedicated to them, Simpson said.
Ventura County Public Defender Todd Howeth said it is “encouraging” that the district attorney’s office and other prosecutors have taken the stepbecausebetter DNA technology has exposed flaws in the criminal justice system.
“Technology has made it more difficult to close our eyes to injusticeand the knowledge that terrible mistakes have been made and they need to be corrected,” Howeth said.
‘Little by little’According to the National Registry of Exonerations a project developed by five universities including UC Irvine there were 29 of these conviction integrity units across the country as of2016. Ventura County has one of seven district attorney’s offices in California to have them.
The concept for the units started in 2000, according to a2016 articlebyattorney Inger H. Chandler in the American Bar Association’s Criminal Justice magazine. During that year,nationally recognized DNA expertGeorge “Woody” Clarke served as a San Diego County prosecutor andsent letters to convicted people offering to test the DNA evidence in their cases.
A few years later, Santa Clara Countyformalized a conviction integrity unit, Schwartz said. It eventually closed due to budget cuts but was re established in 2011, according to Chandler’s article.
Read more: Man exonerated after 36 years in prison sues Ventura County DA
In 2007, Dallas County, Texas, started its own, Schwartz said. After that, “little by little” other jurisdictions started doing the same, he said.
As the creationof these units has increased, the national Innocence Project has developed a set of guidelines or best practicesfor them, Simpson said.
While the organization recognized that the size of a district attorney’s office is a factor in the creation of these groups, the group suggestedthat the people assigned to do these reviews be working on them full time, Simpson said. An independent panel consisting of a prosecutor, public defender and neutral party was also recommended, Simpson said.
Ventura County’s unit does not meet these two guidelines. There is no such panel and the four prosecutors are not exclusively assigned these cases, Schwartz said.
Reviewing claimsSince it became formalized, Ventura County’s unit has reviewed 32 claims, and all have centered on science that prosecutors had previously not been made aware of, Schwartz said. There are still seven claims being reviewed, a process that can take a year or more, Schwartz said.
According to the unit’spolicy, it is the burden of the defendantto present new evidence and/or proof.