Reluctant No More, DAs Add to Growing List of Exonerees

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Since the beginning of last year, the Philadelphia district attorney’s relaunch of a Conviction Integrity Unit has enabled 10 men wrongly convicted of murder to have their cases thrown out and be released from prison, part of a national wave of DA-led exonerations that totaled 344 by the end of 2018, The Washington Post reports. There now are 49 conviction review units in district attorneys’ offices, most of them launched in the past five years, as well as statewide review offices in North Carolina, Michigan and New Jersey. Five other county prosecutors have announced recently they will join the list.

When DNA analysis started leading to exonerations in the early 2000s, prosecutors resisted any sort of systemic review of their cases, said Marvin Zalman, a criminal justice professor at Wayne State University who has written extensively about wrongful convictions. Now, with dozens of review units, “it’s a remarkable change,” Zalman said. “They have more of the ability to generate exonerations than the innocence organizations. They have the capacity to cut through the years of federal review, habeas review, the complexity of these cases. The ability of prosecutors is great.” Some cities, such as Chicago and Philadelphia, have focused on corrupt cops who manufactured cases and won false convictions. Others, such as Houston, have cleared large numbers of cases by looking at flawed drug-testing systems that resulted in dozens of wrongful convictions. The National Registry of Exonerations counted 165 exonerations last year, 69 of them in homicide cases, and found that the exonerees had spent a total of 1,701 years behind bars, or about 10 years per person. Conviction Integrity Units in prosecutors’ offices took part in 60 of those exonerations. The registry has tallied 2,500 wrongful convictions since 1989, costing defendants more than 22,000 years incarcerated.

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