One year after the San Jose Mercury News published “Tainted Trials, Stolen Justice,” there are widespread signs of change in the Santa Clara County, CA, criminal justice system. The series won a criminal justice reporting award at John Jay College of Criminal Justice last November. A new district attorney has vowed to end a “win at all costs” culture in the office. An independent state commission is recommending measures to reduce the risk of wrongful convictions. The county bar and the California Supreme Court have acted to address longstanding problems in the system. Six defendants who were sentenced to prison had convictions overturned or were released from custody in cases the newspaper examined.
Decisions of the 6th District Court of Appeal, which oversees cases in four local counties, appear to demonstrate a new forcefulness. The court has increasingly chastised local judges, prosecutors, and defense attorneys for mistakes and misconduct. The court is reversing criminal cases at a rate higher than at any time in at least 18 years. “I think what you are seeing at the 6th District is remarkable, and over time has to impact what happens in the conduct of trials,” said Gerald Uelmen, a Santa Clara University law professor and expert in California’s appellate courts. While lawyers and judges say the newspaper’s five-day series caused an extensive re-examination of many local practices, it is impossible to determine how the series influenced any of the current changes. Many who work in criminal justice say they believe the system is undergoing significant changes that are not likely to be undone.