In the course of Failed Evidence, I argue that every prosecutor’s office needs a conviction integrity unit (CIU). And in “Exoneration and Freedom For a Man Convicted in ’10” (N.Y. Times, Oct. 27) we get a perfect example of why CIUs are so important.
The article concerns a robbery case brought against Lawrence Williams by the Brooklyn (N.Y.) District Attorney’s office. The only evidence against Mr. Williams was a faulty eyewitness identification, but it was enough to convict him. Eventually, another man, already in prison, confessed to the crime.
What makes the case unusual is that Mr. Williams’ post conviction claim that he was innocent was investigated not by an outside agency, but by a CIU inside the Brooklyn DA’s own office — the same DA’s office that convicted him in the first place. The Williams case is the first such felony case that the Brooklyn DA’s CIU dealt with.
A CIU is a specialized group of lawyers within the DA’s office — just like the ones for sex offenses or for homicide — with the special job of investigating prior convictions in which there are plausible claims of innocence. In other words, when a real claim surfaces that a conviction that the office obtained in the past is wrong and should be investigated, the CIU attorneys investigate, and tell the DA whether or not the conviction should stand.
CIU’s are incredibly important for two major reasons. First, they become the regular institutional mechanism for addressing claims of wrongful convictions and actual innocence. Courts are not set up to correct these types of mistakes, and the CIUs fill this enormous gap. Second, with a regular mechanism in place to handle this task, reform efforts can concentrate on fixing the system going forward, and they are not consumed with the important work of getting justice in individual cases.
Every prosecutor’s office should have a CIU, or at least one attorney who handles CIU-type matters. It is an innovation that will make prosecution better, and provided DAs with a regular way to correct mistakes and learn from them.
Readers: Does the DA’s office in your jurisdiction have a CIU? Does it need one?
Upcoming posts will discuss the history of CIUs, why the Bro0klyn CIU stands out, and other issues.