MULTNOMAH COUNTY DA’S OFFICE JOINS SANTA CLARA COUNTY AND OTHERS, SETS UP CONVICTION INTEGRITY UNIT
As part of a growing trend to combat wrongful convictions, prosecutors offices across the US—including in Dallas, Brooklyn, Philadelphia, Santa Clara County (see below), and the US Attorney in DC (above)—are establishing “conviction integrity” watchdog systems. (And back in August, we pointed to this Mother Jones story about a Florida public defender’s office using a group of former police officers for investigating claims of prosecutorial misconduct and bad police work.)
Now, Oregon’s Multnomah County District Attorney Rod Underhill has nominated a veteran prosecutor to investigate innocence claims, as well as update plea deal policies, and examine how cops utilize photo lineups and confidential informants.
The Oregonian’s Maxine Bernstein has the story. Here’s a clip:
“It’s our job to do it right in the first place and double-check our work if we need to,” Underhill said.
Russ Ratto, a 35-year Multnomah County prosecutor, will start in the new job Monday.
Ratto will review claims of innocence after convictions have occurred and update office protocols on everything from prosecutors’ obligations on sharing evidence with defense attorneys to how to use eyewitness identification of suspects.
Underhill said he hopes that assigning one deputy to the work will improve the ability to track the cases and boost public confidence in the county’s prosecutions. In the past, he said, a number of prosecutors throughout the office have juggled the cases, but there was no central contact.
“We want to make sure we’re using the best practices to obtain the best convictions so we don’t have to ask later ‘Was a mistake made?'” Ratto said. “We think we’ve got a good criminal justice system here, but we want to maintain the public confidence going forward.”
Other prosecutors’ offices are doing the same thing, including in Manhattan, Brooklyn, Dallas, Philadelphia, Denver and California’s Santa Clara County, according to the Center for Prosecutor Integrity.
“This is a very important movement in our nation’s criminal justice system,” said board member Everett Bartlett of the Center for Prosecutor Integrity. The center started in 2010 with a mission to end wrongful convictions and promote prosecutor ethics.
Until the advent of forensic DNA testing in 1989, we “assumed our criminal justice system was operating very effectively and very accurately,” Bartlett said. Since then, he said, more than 1,000 people convicted of crimes have been exonerated. The majority have not been due to DNA analysis, but due to false confessions or problems in witness identification.
California’s Santa Clara County’s Conviction Integrity Unit is headed by David Angel. The San Jose Mercury’s Tracey Kaplan has a worthwhile 2011 story about Angel and his appointment. Here’s how it opens:
Mention Santa Clara University’s esteemed Innocence Project and most prosecutors cringe. They see the legal advocacy group that works to exonerate wrongfully convicted people as out to get them.
But not David Angel, the prosecutor named this month to head the newly re-established Conviction Integrity Unit in the Santa Clara County District Attorney’s Office.
Not only does he not fear the project, he also is teaching a wrongful conviction class alongside Cookie Ridolfi, director of the Northern California Innocence Project at the Santa Clara University School of Law.
It’s not that Angel holds prosecutors solely responsible when people are sent to prison for crimes they didn’t commit. He will forcefully point out that defense attorneys, mistaken eyewitness identifications and false confessions contribute to plenty of wrongful convictions. But Angel is devoted to making certain that the 170 prosecutors in Santa Clara County do all they can to get their cases right.
“He’s a model of a good prosecutor,” said Ridolfi.
As head of the Conviction Integrity Unit, Angel will review cases in which an allegation of a wrongful conviction has been made, examine office policies, serve as crime lab liaison and take charge of training prosecutors on a number of topics, including ethics.
LA TIMES EDITORIAL APPLAUDS END TO RACE-BASED PUNISHMENT IN CALIFORNIA PRISONS
Last week, the CA Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation agreed to end race-determined prisoner lockdowns triggered after a riot or other violent incident, settling a six-year-long class action lawsuit. The suit was originally filed on behalf of black inmates at High Desert State Prison who were confined to their cells for 14 months without access to outdoor exercise or rehabilitation programs, but was broadened to apply to all state prisoners.
An LA Times editorial says punishment based on race should not be used in detention facilities, that inmates should only have to account for their own actions, not the actions of every other inmate of the same race. Here’s a clip:
Racial segregation and discriminatory treatment of populations by race are, prison officials argued, important tools for combating violence. Squeamishness about such responses was a luxury afforded to outsiders who didn’t have to deal with the reality of prison conditions.
In fact, though, racial segregation is at best a temporary option to quickly defuse violence, but unnecessary and corrosive as an ongoing policy; and race-based punishment is an evil that goes to the heart of the American experience and cannot be countenanced in the justice system….
Inside prison walls, just as outside, people should expect that they will be treated according to their actions and not be made to pay for the transgressions, real or perceived, of others of the same race or ethnicity. Society’s failure to abide by that precept is intertwined with the history of crime and punishment and is exacerbated when race-based policies govern prison populations.
HOUSE DEMOCRATS WRITE LETTER TO PRESIDENT VOICING CONCERNS ABOUT DETENTION OF IMMIGRANT WOMEN AND CHILDREN
On Tuesday, over 30 House Democrats signed a letter to President Barack Obama sharing concerns about how the US is handling of immigrant detention and deportation, especially with regard to women and children fleeing violence from their home countries.
Politico’s Seung Min Kim has more on the letter. Here are some clips:
“At the current rates, within one year this administration will have increased capacity to detain immigrant women and children by more than 4,000 percent,” said Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), who spearheaded Tuesday’s letter. “As the law requires, there needs to be a better assessment in place to appropriately screen and assess these women and children, many of whom are fleeing violence, torture or persecution in Central America.”
In Tuesday’s letter, House Democrats said it is “critical” that none of the families who are currently detained be deported until officials ensure they won’t be sent back to dangerous conditions – such as persecution or torture – in their home countries.
The Democratic lawmakers added that they are “concerned that the rapid expansion of family detention is being done in a manner that fails to meet the unique needs of parents and children.”
CHECKING IN WITH NATHANIEL AYERS, THE “SOLOIST,” AS HE RECORDS NEW ALBUM, PUTTING ON AYERS
For KCET’s SoCal Connected, LA Times’ Steve Lopez catches up with Nathaniel Ayers, the formerly homeless, Juilliard-trained musician who is the subject of Lopez’s book (and subsequent film) “The Soloist.” Lopez sits in on the recording of Ayers’ album, Putting on Ayers, the proceeds of which will fund mental health agencies’ art programs.