This week, prompted by an article in the New York Times on October 27, I’m writing about Conviction Integrity Units (CIUs). These are small groups of lawyers inside a prosecutor’s office — just like a homicide unit or a narcotics unit — who have the job of investigating bona fide claims of actual innocence in prior convictions originating in the same office.
CIUs are a relatively recent phenomenon. The first well-known CIU was established in Dallas in 2006. In that year, voters elected Craig Watkins DA of Dallas County, Texas. Watkins was the first African American ever elected to the office of DA anywhere in the history of Texas. At that time, Dallas County by itself had had more cases of wrongful convictions, discovered through DNA testing, than all but a handful of states. Watkins was elected on a promise to clean up the mess, and one of the first things he did was establish the CIU in his office. He soon began to have the CIU work in partnership with Texas Innocence Project. The Innocence Project served as the investigating and screening system for claims of actual innocence, which it then brought to the attention of the CIU.
In the almost six years of its work, the Dallas DA’s CIU has uncovered and righted some grave miscarriages of justice: DNA testing revealed that those convicted had not committed the crimes. In some number of these cases, the CIU investigation and DNA testing has also managed to find the real perpetrators by comparing crime-scene DNA with DNA samples in existing databases. In others, the CIU’s work has confirmed the guilt of the convicted.
Watkins’ CIU proved to be an example for a few other DAs. The first was Pat Lykos, elected DA in Houston in 2008. (Lykos lost her bid for re-election earlier this year, for reasons having nothing to do with her CIU.) This year, the DA in Manhattan announced that his office will create a CIU, and the Times article tells us that the Brooklyn DA has established one already.
Readers: Do you know of a DA’s office with a CIU? Tell us where and how long it has been around.