More than half of the conviction review units listed on the National Registry of Exonerations website have not produced an exoneration, according to USA Today.
Marissa Bluestine is an attorney and assistant director of the Quattrone Center for the Fair Administration of Justice at the University of Pennsylvania Law School.
According to Bluestine, conviction review units materialized in the late 2000s. Among the nation’s more than 2,500 prosecutorial offices are 115 such units.
The units conduct post-conviction investigations to determine whether those convicted are factually innocent or if the judicial process leading to conviction was flawed.
Bluestine, who previously oversaw the Pennsylvania Innocence Project, told USA Today that conviction review units, as overseers, conduct post judicial investigations that decide whether to vacate convictions. Motions to vacate usually occur only after proving the person factually innocent or if the methods used to convict were erroneous.
Bluestine told the USA Today that “some units also conduct audits of cases involving bad actors and issue case corrections, where prosecutors determine a person was convicted of a more serious crime than they should have been and adjust sentencing.”
Conviction review units are different from appeals. They usually work with organizations like the Innocence Project and defense attorneys to reinvestigate cases. “Under post-conviction laws, it’s very onerous for somebody their conviction,” she said.
According to the National Registry of Exonerations, the units have been involved in more than 670 of the country’s more than 3,280 exonerations.
According to the National Registry of Exonerations, contributive factors leading to exonerations includes official misconduct, perjury or false accusation, false or misleading forensic evidence, false confession, mistaken witness identification and inadequate legal defense.
More than 29,100 years have been “lost” in prison due to “wrongful convictions” that have been uncovered thus far, according to the registry.
“We’ve all been raised to believe that our system is a great system that works well, that we identify the right people, we convict the right people, we give people the right sentences,” said Bluestine, in her interview with ABC News.
“It has been a very hard awakening for a lot of people to realize that that’s just not always the case.”
The ABC News article referenced the following examples of cases cleared by CIUs were:
Sidney Holmes, wrongfully convicted and sentenced to 400 years, exonerated after 34 years in prison;
Lamar Johnson, wrongfully convicted of a shooting without physical evidence connecting him to the incident and sentenced to life in prison;
Leon Benson, freed after 25 years of a more than 60- year sentence for a crime he maintains he did not commit.
Bluestine believes that conviction review units could have a broader impact on how prosecutors run their offices, but they need more support. “You can announce a unit, but if you’re not resourcing it, giving it the right independence, giving it the right flexibility, giving it the right amount of transparency, or allowing it to be transparent, then it really is an open question about whether it’s a sincere effort or not,” she said.
According to a press release from the University of San Francisco, exonerated Leon Benson said, “Truth never dies. It is only rediscovered.”
Bluestine said, “There’s still quite a ways to go … [but] people are starting to demand it more and request it more.