Why Every Prosecutor’s Office Needs a Conviction Integrity Unit, Part 2: Some Recent History

Posted: October 30, 2012 in Wrongful Convictions
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

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.

  1. […] of you who follow this blog have read (e.g., here and here) about conviction integrity units (CIUs): small groups of attorneys in a district attorney’s […]

  2. […] 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 […]

  3. […] of the group.  One possible remedy would be to do what DA Craig Watkins has done with his Conviction Integrity Unit in Dallas: he has made the Texas Innocence Project an integral part of the Unit’s […]

  4. Mr. Woodward, I respectfully disagree with some of what you say.
    1) I am glad to hear that you and your colleagues never lost a case, and they were always properly investigated, prepared and prosecuted. Unfortunately, not all law enforcement agencies have that same enviable record. For the past twenty-plus years, we have seen a mounting number of stories of sloppy work, improper investigations, and resulting tainted convictions. Even more disturbing than sloppiness is that DNA now tells us that — even though officers have followed standard law enforcement practices perfectly, mistakes still occur regularly, because those standard practices are just not as accurate as we all used to think — and I include myself among those who used to think this. We simply cannot ignore these facts.
    2) To create a CIU is not “to admit that we don’t know how to get it right the first time around.” Rather, it is to admit that we are human, the system we work in is constructed and staffed by human beings, and human beings make mistakes. And those mistakes have begun to show up, with disturbing regularity. When we create a CIU, we simply say that even the most competent, best intentioned people don’t always get it right, and when we get it wrong, we should have a mechanism to correct the mistakes.
    3) CIUs do not send the message that prosecutors or investigators are incompetent or biased. A few are, but the great majority are not. Rather, it is simply a recognition people don’t always get it right.
    4) This isn’t about giving advocacy groups or “left leaning types” more ammunition to attack the integrity of the justice system. On the contrary, this is about preserving the integrity of the system. The examples of jurisdictions that have created breakthroughs on these issues that you will find in my book Failed Evidence all feature leaders who come from the political right. They took these issues on because they understood that the integrity of the system is at stake when we will not admit that mistakes get made and correct our systems to do better.

  5. Luke Woodward says:

    I believe in what one of the founding fathers, John Adams said “Better that one hundred guilty men should go free than one innocent main should go to jail”. Having said that, I can say that in more than thirty years in law enforcement, our cases were always properly investigated, prepared and prosecuted. We never lost a case mainly because the evidence of guilt was so overwhelming. This is being said from the perspective of the federal judicial system which may be perceived by some as less work load more resources etc. But, that should not matter. It just seems to me, that establishing a CIU is to admit that we don’t know how to get it right the first time around. Further, that we have hired prosecutors, investigators support personnel etc. who are perceived as incompetent, biased or otherwise not impartial as is required by the “Innocent Until Proven Guilty” right, hence the perception that we need to re-litigate all that they do by use of a So called Conviction Integrity Unit.

    This just gives the Amnesty Int and left leaning types more fodder for arguments against punitive judicial systems v. The rehabilitative view of judicial systems. They become even more wrongly convinced that we have a system that is in and of itself “unjust”. So, Instead of creating more “Empire” infrastructure ie; a CIU in each prosecutorial jurisdiction; would it not be more desirable to focus on parts of the greatest most just judicial system ever created and fix only what may be occasionally in error?

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