DA Chesa Boudin proposes an Innocence Commission
DA Chesa Boudin. Photo by Abraham Rodriguez.

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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Julian Mark

Julian grew up in the East Bay and moved to San Francisco in 2014. Before joining Mission Local, he wrote for the East Bay Express, the SF Bay Guardian, and the San Francisco Business Times.

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14 Comments

  1. This is the duty of the Public Defender, not the District Attorney. San Francisco now has two public defenders. Instead. Boudin should do the job he was elected to do, prosecuting criminals. He should prosecute those who break into cars, shoplift, embezzle, etc.

    1. Howard, it is the duty of the District Attorney to prosecute criminals and to see that justice is done. That means ensuring that innocent people are not treated unfairly, subjected to any of the many causes of wrongful conviction, and convicted of crimes they didn’t commit.
      These are problems rampant throughout the United States, and responsible prosecutors are increasingly reviewing cases and practices to reverse wrongful convictions and ensure that more don’t occur.
      Congratulations to DA Chesa Boudin for his commitment NOT to convict the INNOCENT!

      1. Well written,

        WE lost RBG.

        We have ‘CB’ (Chesa Boudin).

        I believe Chesa was Jeff’s lead attorney on …

        Making us no longer the world leader in excessive incarceration.

        Like, his predecessor, George Gascon.

        Following you in LA, George … my oldest sister has 4 attorney kids
        there who all work to oppose discrimination.

        With the 3 new judges (Gold, Evangelista and Tong) we are winning big time for forces of Good.

        As, I see it.

        Tho, as Jagger put it ….

        https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GgnClrx8N2k

        Always give your opponent their due.

        No victory that is not the result of a hard fight remains memorable ..

        https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GgnClrx8N2k

        We’re winning.

        Regards to Jeff Adachi who is in my dreams.

        Go Niners!

        Did you watch the Chief’s kicker nail 4, 58 field goals today?

        h.

    2. Chesa Boudin forgets his role is to protect the innocent citizens in the community. Crime rates are rising 50% since he took over the office. The real victims are friends and family members of someone in the community. He’s busy focusing on his “cause?” Unwanted and not appreciated. San Franciscan will vote him out of his office like our lives depend on it.

  2. It is finally good to see justice finally served as it should be..it horrible to be sent to prison for a crime never committed..it was done to my husband an he died in prison..NEVER regaining his feedom..an i cant sue i cant even clear his name..cause you see im one of millions thats poor..thats the other bad thing..you poor theres nothing can be done..the ones who lied will never be punished an get away with a crime..sad really

  3. We will vote Boudin out in the next election his name appears. The only reason he is DA is the city’s weird tiered voting system which looks at voters’ second and third choices if the voters’ don’t give anyone a majority. Boudin got in on the third run in that labyrinthine system,. His three opponents together got twice as many votes.

    1. Agreed. One of the many flaws in the RCV system (and they are far too numerous to list here) is that it favors the one against the many. Examples :Breed against Leno and Kim, Boudin against Loftus, Tung, and Dautch.

      64% of the votes went to the three law and order candidates. The RCV mechanism for consolidating those votes looks easy on paper but doesn’t work well in real life.

      If the Tung and Dautch knew that it was coming down to Loftus or Boudin they would have held their noses and voted for Loftus in greater numbers. But they had less then perfect information when they voted.

      Which is an improvement…..why?

      1. Law and Order?…Did you people even read the story?…These are human beings confronted with a system already undermined by the harrowing effects of systemic racism. Granted, the measures to be instituted will have to be tweaked, overseen, and amended, but there are wrongs long ignored that must be tackled and mitigated. Boudin was elected for his progressive stance, in a progressive city, serving an ever more diverse, if beleaguered workforce, and populace. If certain members of the electorate do not like those policies, that’s democracy in action, a complicated and troublesome beast which won’t ever please all. But our communities need a law enforcement approach that embodies the values of those communities, and protects their physical, economical, integral well-being. A tall order, but it should be attempted, lest failure be a foregone conclusion, by not even trying.

        1. Let’s not forget that Chesa appeals to a different, and more influential generation than he boomers.

          I wonder how many 1st time voters he influenced, no never mind let’s pretend he just lets his favorite prisoners out so they can party at bohemian grove

      2. Yulia,

        As a recovering Green I love IRV.

        Hey, electrons are free.

        Not like paper.

        Go ahead and list the failings of IRV that at “too numerous” for here.

        Joe won’t mind.

        h.

  4. Law and Order?…These are people confronted by a juridical system already laboring under the stress of systemic racism. Boudin is merely trying to address this. He was elected by an electorate that understood his progressive leanings, in a progressive city, with an ever more diverse, if economically beleaguered, populace. Democracy is a complicated beast which at times will not please everyone with its attempts at mitigation, but governments should address those shortfalls, lest failure be a foregone conclusion, by not even trying.

    1. Campers,

      Boudin is the spear tip.

      This is a guy who spent his childhood sleeping in prisons just to see his dad.

      Seems to have inspired him to win scholarships to the best schools in the World
      to gain the skills to mitigate those circumstances.

      For other children.

      Of convicts.

      You don’t like that?

      Vote against him.

      Carry a sign against him for 120 miles as I did in his favor.

      Hey, I won along with him and I barely know the guy.

      It was the CAUSE!!

      Chiefs may be the best team in the Universe.

      h.

  5. Karl,

    Never bet over a dollar.

    However, bet you a dollar Chesa wins going away from long as he wants in this office.

    You see Trent Williams at 6’5″ and 315 pounds cross entire field to destroy someone who intercepted a pass?

    Would he have made that kind of effort if he didn’t have a guaranteed contract?

    May whatever God you worship bless Lynch and Shannihan for bringing this guy to town.

    h.

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