I’ve written before about Conviction Integrity Units (CIUs) in prosecutors’ offices (take a look here and here). CIUs are groups of lawyers within prosecutors’ offices — just like a major crimes unit or a narcotics unit, though probably much smaller than either of these — with the job of investigating questionable past convictions from that same office. CIUs do this when presented with evidence that raises real doubts about the guilt of a convicted defendant in one of the office’s past cases.
The first CIU was established by Dallas DA Craig Watkins, who had then just been elected against a backdrop of more than 20 exonerations of people wrongfully convicted under the past leadership of his agency. (The latest story about Watkins and the exoneration of wrongfully convicted people in Dallas — examining a fascinating twist on exonerations — is here.) Just a couple of years later, Patricia Lykos, then the newly elected DA in Houston, established a CIU in her office. From Texas, the idea has begun to spread.
Both the Dallas and Houston CIUs have one thing in common: they were launched by new DAs to investigate cases that originated under former administrations. No doubt this is easier than investigating mistakes that have happened under one’s own watch.
That’s what makes this story out of the Brooklyn DA’s office so interesting. Charles Hynes, the elected DA of Brooklyn, established a CIU that will be looking at cases in which prosecutors obtained convictions during his own six terms in office. For example, at the end of March, David Ranta, 58, was released after spending 23 years in prison for the killing of a rabbi in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. The original conviction came under Hynes’ leadership; when Ranta was released, Hynes gave credit for the release to his CIU.
CIUs accomplish something very fundamental: they make the task of uncovering mistakes in the justice system into a routine operation. On the other hand, as readers of this blog have correctly pointed out, CIUs are a lot like internal affairs divisions in police departments: the DAs are investigating themselves. This is easier to credit when the head of the office is not the same person who was at the helm when the mistakes were made. It is also why CIUs are still rare when the head of the office has been serving a long time — long enough to be the one responsible for the mistakes under investigation.