How do prosecutors release wrongfully convicted people?

A Florida man who served more than 34 years of a 400-year sentence for an armed robbery conviction was released on Wednesday after prosecutors discovered he was likely misidentified.

The release of Sidney Holmes, 57, comes less than a week after New York man Sheldon Thomas was freed after 18 years following a wrongful murder conviction.

The week before Thomas was released, Maurice Hastings was declared innocent in California after nearly 40 years in prison.

The three men were exonerated after conviction review units at local prosecutors’ offices reviewed their cases. These units, also known as conviction integrity units, have grown exponentially in recent years and experts say their impact could go beyond the release of those wrongfully incarcerated.

“A CIU looks back to identify cases from the past that need to be revisited,” said Marissa Bluestine, deputy director of the Quattrone Center for the Fair Administration of Justice at the University of Pennsylvania Law School. “But it’s also learning from that mistake to prevent those mistakes from happening again in the future.”

What are Conviction Review Units?

Conviction review units conduct out-of-court investigations into past convictions to determine whether they should be overturned because the convicted person is innocent or because the sentencing process was flawed, said Bluestine, who led the Pennsylvania Innocence Project for a decade.

She said some units also conduct bad actor case audits and issue case corrections, where prosecutors determine that a person has been convicted of a more serious crime than they should have been. be and adjust the sentence.

Some units have multiple lawyers, investigators and support staff. However, others are essentially “one man or one woman shows,” said National Exemption Registry researcher Jessica Weinstock Paredes.

“My experience and visceral impression based on years of talking with these units is that many of them could use a lot more help and if there were more resources and more funding they would be bigger and produce more,” she said.

How many conviction review units are there?

The first conviction review units emerged in the late 2000s and there are now more than 115 in the country’s more than 2,500 prosecutor’s offices, according to Bluestine.

“It’s been a leap forward, but there’s still a long way to go to make it a bit more pervasive throughout the system,” she said. “I think people are starting to demand it more and ask for it more.”

New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal announced the creation of a statewide Conviction Review Unit and a statewide Cold Case Network during a a press conference at the Hughes Justice Complex in Trenton on April 11, 2019. Judge Carolyn Murray, pictured, has been appointed Director of Conviction Review. unit.

How many people have been cleared?

Conviction review units have been involved in more than 670 of the country’s more than 3,280 exonerations, according to the National Exoneration Registry. The most common contributing factors leading to an exoneration are official misconduct, perjury or false accusation, false or misleading forensic evidence, false confessions, misidentification of witnesses and inadequate legal defense, said Paredes.

More than half of the 96 units listed on the registry’s website did not file an exemption. Bluestine said older units in larger jurisdictions that don’t have an exemption could be a cause for concern, but generally that reflects the length and difficulty of reinvestigations.

Maurice Hastings hears instructions during a Los Angeles Superior Court hearing where a judge threw out his murder conviction after new DNA evidence exonerated him October 20, 2022 in Los Angeles.

How do conviction review units exonerate wrongfully convicted persons?

Unlike an appeal, conviction review units often work with organizations like the Innocence Project and defense attorneys to review cases, Bluestine said.

“Under post-conviction laws, it is very onerous for someone to go to court to have their conviction overturned,” she said.

It can be difficult to track down witnesses who are willing to testify or find physical evidence that can be tested, Bluestine said. Even if prosecutors think someone is innocent, they may not be able to come back to court, she said.

Bluestine brought up the case of Lamar Johnson, who was released in February after spending nearly three decades wrongfully imprisoned for murder. The Missouri attorney general’s office has fought to keep Johnson in jail, but a state law has been passed to make it easier for prosecutors to get new hearings when there is new evidence of a conviction. unjustified.

Lamar Johnson, center, and his lawyers react February 14 after St. Louis Circuit Judge David Mason overturned his murder conviction during a hearing in St. Louis. Johnson served nearly 28 years of a life sentence for a murder he has always said he did not commit.

The final decision is then up to the judge, Bluestine said. The process includes “extraordinary hurdles” and could take years, she said.

“It’s an extraordinary effort that requires dedicated resources, but it also requires luck and a supportive legal environment,” she said.

Conviction review units have improved, but need more resources

The conviction review units have made significant changes to their structure that move toward “values ​​of transparency, flexibility and independence,” Bluestine said.

She said most units were initially led by career prosecutors, but now more than half are led by someone with experience as a defense attorney.

Bluestine said if run well, these units could have a broader impact on running prosecutors’ offices, but they need more support.

“You can advertise a unit, but if you don’t resource it, give it the right independence, give it the right flexibility, give it the right amount of transparency, or allow it to be transparent, so it’s really an open question whether it’s a sincere effort or not,” she said.

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Contributor: The Associated Press

Contact Breaking News reporter N’dea Yancey-Bragg at or follow her on Twitter @NdeaYanceyBragg

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