Our justice system fails people every day, but none more so than the thousands of men and women who have been wrongfully convicted.
Huwe Burton was 16 years old when he found his mother brutally murdered in their Bronx apartment. Police focused on Burton rather than other obvious leads, including the man found driving his mother’s stolen car. Sleep-deprived, traumatized and following hours of interrogation, Burton confessed to his mother’s murder. Though he quickly recanted and testified in his own defense at trial, the judge refused to permit expert testimony about the science of false confessions. Burton was incarcerated for 19 years before his exoneration in the Bronx in January.
Gloria Killian was a 35-year-old law student with no criminal history when she was falsely accused of orchestrating a deadly gunpoint burglary committed by Gary Masse. Masse didn’t contest his guilt, but in exchange for a lighter sentence he named Killian as the mastermind. Masse concealed his plea bargain from the jury, and Killian was convicted despite the lack of corroborating evidence. Later, Masse sent a letter to the prosecutor’s office saying, “I lied my ass off for you people” — again, the prosecutor failed to make any disclosure. Killian spent more than 15 years behind bars before her exoneration.
These examples reveal a common thread among wrongful convictions: the failure of prosecutors to re-examine and question cases where warning bells are sounded. Trial attorneys can become blinded by a single theory of a case and disregard contrary evidence. And not all district attorney offices have processes in place to guard against these concerns.
That picture is changing. This week, Burton and Killian met with 17 elected prosecutors from across the country to underscore the importance of conviction integrity units (CIUs), a best practice for protecting the integrity of the justice system. The units, run by district attorney’s offices, review claims of innocence as well as other allegations that undermine the integrity of a conviction such as violations of due process.
And on Thursday, two men, Clifford Williams and Nathan Myers, were exonerated in Jacksonville, Florida, after spending more than four decades in prison. The recommendation to vacate their convictions was made by prosecutor Melissa Nelson and her conviction integrity unit — the first in the state — bringing the total number of exonerations nationally for 2019 to 33.
Unfortunately wrongful convictions are disturbingly common — more than 2,400 people have been exonerated since 1989. These men and women have lost more than 21,000 years of their lives behind bars. More than 40 of them spent at least 30 years in prison. And between 1973 and 2018, at least 164 people were exonerated from death row.
Our system can, and must, do better.
Many factors can lead to this miscarriage of justice. Research suggests that more than half of wrongful convictions involve questionable forensic science testimony, including experts overstating their conclusions or testifying with more certainty than warranted.
Confirmation bias and implicit bias may lead investigators and prosecutors to disregard exonerating evidence. False confessions can result from coercion and fear. Memories are surprisingly malleable, and well-intentioned witnesses could misidentify perpetrators, particularly across racial lines.
Wrongful convictions happen, and prosecutors have an affirmative duty to pursue justice when they do. Conviction integrity units are the best way to fulfill that obligation.
A growing consensus is emerging as to how CIUs should operate.
First, CIUs should be independent, led by a respected and experienced lawyer reporting directly to the district attorney and protected from internal influences. Given the concerning impact of confirmation bias, CIUs should not be part of the appellate unit whose role is to defend convictions. Annual reports and engagement of outside experts or an external review board are integral to transparency, accountability and integrity of the process. And perhaps, most important, CIUs should have a broad mandate to investigate not simply claims of innocence, but also situations where a miscarriage of justice occurred — and when errors are identified, they should inform office policy and training.
Thankfully, these best practices are not theoretical. More than 30 prosecutors’ offices across the country, from Brooklyn to Jacksonville, Florida, to Kansas City, Kansas, have stepped up to implement CIUs, leading to further exonerations and changes in office culture. Notably, the Brooklyn DA’s office recently announced its 25th exoneration since 2014, setting a powerful example of what a conviction integrity unit can accomplish.
Doing what is right is not easy.
Marilyn Mosby, the state’s attorney for Baltimore City, has faced opposition in her efforts to remedy convictions that had been tainted because of misconduct by members of the city’s police department.
With more than 2,400 exonerations, we have already made too many tragic mistakes. But a new generation of reform-minded prosecutors is creating a justice system that not only looks forward in hopes of greater fairness and equity, but also looks back to correct past injustices. Conviction integrity units play a vital role in that vision.
It’s time for every DA’s office to embrace this best practice and build a system that prevents people like Burton and Killian from suffering at the hands of injustice.
Miriam Aroni Krinsky spent 15 years as a federal prosecutor and is the executive director of Fair and Just Prosecution, a national network of elected prosecutors committed to new thinking and innovation.