The San Francisco District Attorney’s office has begun reviewing potential wrongful conviction cases and will soon be deciding, through an “Innocence Commission,” whether to vacate the convictions of people it determines were wrongfully convicted, the office announced on Thursday.
In what appears to be a first-in-the-nation model, the DA’s office will work to overturn wrongful convictions through a two-step process — a “post-conviction unit” reviewing past cases, and a separate six-member Innocence Commission that will review the cases the unit puts forward. The commission will then make recommendations to DA Chesa Boudin on whether he should petition to vacate the convictions.
“Promoting justice in our legal system requires us not only to move forward but also to look backwards,” Boudin said in a statement on Thursday. “Wrongful convictions cause concentric circles of harm: to the wrongfully convicted, to the crime victims who were told a false story and re-traumatized, to the jurors who unwittingly participated in the injustice, and to the integrity of the system as a whole.”
“When someone has been wrongly convicted, it is incumbent upon prosecutors to correct that injustice,” he added.
Lara Bazelon, the director of the Criminal & Juvenile Justice and Racial Justice Clinics at University of San Francisco Law School, will chair the six-member Innocence Commission. She hopes the commission will be up and running in the next “four to six weeks” and said the District Attorney’s office already has “a number of cases in the pipeline” for the commission to review.
Since the commission will also accept petitions from individuals the post-conviction unit does not recommend, Bazelon expects a “flood of letters” in the early months. And she added that all types of convictions are fair game for review, but the commission would mainly be looking at “heavy cases” in which, for example, someone has spent years in prison for a serious crime he or she did not commit.
“The commission will present [Boudin] with very detailed findings of fact and conclusions of law — and that will be the basis of him going back to court, absent some extenuating circumstance,” Bazelon said.
Aside from reviewing “legally questionable” convictions, the DA’s post-conviction unit will seek out cases in which sentences were excessive. The unit will consider a defendant’s prison conduct, input from victims in the case, and a person’s reentry plans in determining whether to move to re-sentence them.
Bazelon said that the new model — an arm of the DA’s office that reviews and moves to overturn wrongful convictions — is the first of its kind in the nation, according to her observations as a professor in this area of law. Ordinarily, she said, District Attorneys fight until the “bitter end” to prevent a wrongfully convicted person from freeing themselves from jail or prison. The DA’s new program will be “a very different process than what I’m used to,” she said.
Indeed, the process is a far cry from even a decade ago in San Francisco. Last month, Mission Local wrote about Maurice Caldwell, who was wrongfully convicted of murder in 1991 and overturned his conviction in 2010 by presenting new evidence showing his innocence and proving that his lawyer did not represent him properly.
Despite the findings, then-District Attorney Kamala Harris re-charged Caldwell with murder following the overturning of his conviction. Although the DA was ultimately forced to drop the charges because it lacked the proper evidence, Caldwell is still fighting to prove his innocence nearly a decade later.
As noted in Boudin’s announcement on Thursday, there are more than 2,600 people like Caldwell across the nation, according to the National Registry of Exonerations. And perhaps there are more in San Francisco ready to join the registry.
Retired Judge LaDoris Cordell, medical expert Dr. George Wood, executive director of the Northern California Innocence Project Linda Starr, San Francisco Managing District Attorney Arcelia Hurtado, and San Francisco Deputy Public Defender Jacque Wilson will join Bazelon on the Innocence Commission.
“I have dedicated my career to improving the fairness of our justice system,” Cordell said in a statement. “ I am looking forward to serving on the Innocence Commission, which will play a critical role in bolstering the integrity of our legal system by ensuring that wrongful convictions can be identified and reversed.”
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