Lara Bazelon, the chair of the body that investigates potential wrongful convictions throughout San Francisco, stood on the damp steps of City Hall Wednesday morning and urged the new District Attorney to preserve the commission.
In 2020, former District Attorney Chesa Boudin assembled a six-member team of lawyers, a medical expert, a law professor, and a judge to identify and correct causes of wrongful convictions, independent of the District Attorney’s Office. The task force is overseen by Bazelon, a law professor at the University of San Francisco, who now worries about the future of the commission following Boudin’s recall from office.
District Attorney Brooke Jenkins, Boudin’s replacement, previously expressed support for the commission when she served as the assistant district attorney to Boudin (“I love this! … Thank you!!!!”). She later quit and helped to lead a campaign to recall her former boss.
With Jenkins in office, the new DA decides whether the commission survives the transition of power. Bazelon fears the project will be diluted to a nominal entity, or disappear completely. The law professor is calling for Jenkins to demonstrate good faith by allowing the commission to continue.
That’s because it works, Bazelon says.
In April, Joaquin Ciria walked out of a San Francisco jail after spending 32 years in prison for a murder the commission concluded he did not commit. The board spent 18 months reviewing court transcripts, interviewing key witnesses, SFPD files, and trial records before recommending the District Attorney overturn the conviction. The DA office conducted its investigation and agreed.
“Make no mistake, this is incredibly complicated, painstaking work,” said Bazelon. “And it is dedication and experience. It also requires the ear of the DA and a willingness to take seriously our findings and recommendations.”
Ciria expressed his support for the commission over the phone from his home in San Antonio, where he is now reunited with his wife and son.
“When I walked out of jail, I thanked God for bringing the right people into my life, and that includes the Innocence Commission,” Ciria said. “We have to understand that not every person in San Francisco gets this result; to pay for a good lawyer or to pay for a good team to fight injustice.”
In California alone, 276 people have been released after serving convictions for crimes they did not commit. Their imprisonment cost taxpayers more than $275 million and deprived those convicted of a collective 2,175 years of their lives, according to a 2016 report released by the National Registry of Exonerations.
Yet another reason why the Innocence Commission needs to stay, according to Bazelon.
“Were we to be disbanded or replaced, what would happen is that we’d go back to the old days and were assured that there was an internal unit that was hard at work. Those units exonerated no one,” she said.
Our query to the office of the District Attorney has not yet been returned.