The Watchdog Inside the DA's Office

In Philadelphia and other cities, prosecutors have formed “conviction review units” — special teams that reinvestigate cases they may have gotten wrong.  


In the 24 years former inmate Shaurn Thomas spent trying to convince others of his innocence, he maintained that “the justice system was going to prevail sooner or later, and that somebody would hear my cries.” Letters he’d written claiming he wasn’t involved in a 1990 murder convinced local lawyers to offer their help, but Thomas wouldn’t have gone free without the assistance of the Philadelphia district attorney’s office — the same one that put him behind bars.

For eight years, his two-person legal team had gained little traction arguing that on the day of the murder, Thomas, then 16, was at a youth detention center for an unrelated matter. “Basically, the courts did not listen to us,” said one of the two lawyers, Jim Figorski of the firm Dechert LLP. The tipping point came when the “conviction review unit” at the DA’s office stepped in last year. “They finally sat down and gave us a forum, whereas nobody [else] did,” Figorski said.

Known as the CRU, the group is tasked with reviewing and reinvestigating old cases when the inmates involved have a plausible claim of innocence. ... In Philadelphia, the CRU made available evidence that Figorski and his partner, Marissa Bluestine, were denied access to: 36 pages of witness statements that had sat, untouched, in the city’s police headquarters for over two decades and hadn’t been shared with his original public defender. The transcripts contradicted accounts that Thomas had a role in the murder, the shooting death of a storeowner in North Philadelphia. Ultimately, the CRU lawyers determined they had insufficient evidence to keep him locked up, though they weren’t absolutely convinced of his innocence. “Had that information been available at trial … prosecutors agreed the trial would likely have ended differently,” read a statement from the Pennsylvania Innocence Project, the organization Bluestine works for. Thomas was released from a Pennsylvania prison in May.

“A prosecutor’s duty is to pursue justice,
and freeing innocent people from prison
is justice in its purest form.”

... Creating a CRU in 2014 was one of the few campaign promises kept by former DA Seth Williams, who was elected on a reformist platform and has since been indicted on federal corruption charges. For the first three years of its existence, however, the unit had only one staffer, who worked only part-time. In November, around the time that the unit would begin its revamping, The Philadelphia Inquirer and the Philadelphia Daily News reported that the CRU hadn’t yet found any cases to throw out; that news worried skeptical defense attorneys and prisoner advocates, who doubted the unit had adequately considered the petitions of innocence that had been submitted. To date, the unit has received 87 petitions, according to its director, Elizabeth Graham-Rubin.

Perhaps not coincidentally, Williams was running for reelection against a pool of pro-reform candidates when he overhauled the unit. (He left the race when it became clear that the allegations against him could lead to prison time; he’s currently being held in a federal detention center while awaiting his October trial.) 

Now, the CRU has three full-time staffers; access to several detectives, though none dedicated to the unit; and updated practices. These days, its website hosts a standardized application form for potential exonerees and a list of guidelines that weren’t easily accessible before.

The man likely to take Williams’s job after November’s DA election, Democratic primary winner Larry Krasner, said in a statement that he plans to expand the unit, too. “There has been progress, but not nearly enough,” Krasner wrote. “A prosecutor’s duty is to pursue justice, and freeing innocent people from prison is justice in its purest form.”

Full article in THE ATLANTIC

Convictions At Any Cost, statement, March 29