Mar 13, 2016

Texas Conviction Integrity Unit Hailed as Model

Goya, Saturn devouring a child
As prosecutor-politicians and police advance their careers over the shattered lives of the wrongfully convicted, from Texas comes a report on the success of the country's first conviction integrity unit.

Noah Fromson, (Medill News Service), reports in the Texas Tribune in Austin, Texas:

In 2007, the new district attorney of Dallas County partnered with the Innocence Project of Texas to review over 400 old cases, many involving denied requests for DNA testing, because the county had the highest number of wrongful convictions in the country.

To ensure such mistaken convictions never happened again, District Attorney Craig Watkins established the first conviction integrity unit in the United States later that year.

'We made history ... I still get calls to my private office for individuals that want me to do that,' Watkins said this week of reviewing old cases, 'but I don't have the power to do that anymore.' ...

While they exist in less than 1 percent of the nation’s 3,007 counties, such units were responsible for 39 percent of overturned wrongful convictions in the U.S. last year, according to a report by the National Registry of Exonerations. That’s 58 of the record-high 149 exonerations in 2015.

The work of reporters and innocence projects has led to a series of exonerations involving the misuse of forensic information by law enforcement, said James Liebman, director of the Center for Public Research and Leadership at the Columbia Law School.

'There is a huge sensitivity now to the misuse of prosecutorial and police processes to convict people who are innocent,' Liebman said. 'Officials have become sensitive to those (innocence) claims and are taking responsibility to do something about it.' ...

As a result, more district attorneys are starting their own units, said John Hollway, executive director of the Quattrone Center for the Fair Administration of Justice at the University of Pennsylvania Law School.

“As information has spread and (units) have gotten more praise and done more good, you see a rapid uptick,” Hollway said. “More than half of them were started in the last 24 months.”

The units spend a lot of time sorting through requests from the convicted parties, innocence projects and other sources to decide what to review, said Inger Chandler, chief of the Conviction Review Section at the Harris County District Attorney’s Office in Houston.

'We try to give every case its due diligence because the last thing you want to do is miss that needle in a haystack,' Chandler said. 'Where we carve people out of eligibility for our review is that you have to be making a claim of actual factual innocence. In other words, 'I wasn’t there' or 'I was misidentified.' Not a justification, not a lesser role, but factual innocence.'

Working to free the innocent. Sounds like a good idea.


While the Innocence Project notes some systemic causes of wrongful convictions—Eyewitness misidentification, Unvalidated or improper forensic science, False confessions or admissions, Government misconduct, Informants, Inadequate defense—the fact is the government, the Constitutional Sovereign, in the criminal justice system is implemented by fallible and not-always-decent people.

As such, every base motivation and imperfection to which the human mind is subject—prejudice, hate, complacency, career opportunity, convenience, lassitude, intellectual laziness, tunnel vision—are inflicted onto the suspect and accused.

Conviction integrity units 

Conviction integrity units independent from the District Attorney's office are critical, emphatically when one considers police and prosecutors often stand in the way of exoneration and freedom for the innocent in the face of exculpatory evidence, (Gould, Leo; The Path to Exoneration).

Our local democracies must embrace the fact many in law enforcement will take a conviction of the innocent over the truth, or tragedy results.

When victims, whom police and prosecutors know to be innocent, are impelled onto the criminal justice conveyor belt, law enforcement personnel convince themselves they're just doing their jobs.

As for the innocent people sent into exile to the leviathan about which Robert Jackson presciently warned us about 75 years, their lives are taken and easily forgotten.

Steven J. Phillips published No Heroes, No Villains (Vintage) in 1978, explaining the procedures of criminal law in a gripping account and chronicling of a true-crime murder case in New York. Phillips' thoughtful book no longer bears any relevancy to criminal law procedure in the police-prosecutor-prison-state America.

Today, the villains often wear badges redolent with the myth of purity, defenders against the dangerous class. Prosecutors, judges and court services are bureaucrats working busily like something out of Terry Gilliam's film, Brazil.

Penny Brummer 

In Dane County (Wisconsin), advocates working to free an innocent woman, Penny Brummer—convicted in 1994 and inflicted a life sentence behind bars by an unholy convergence of bigotry, tunnel vision, careerism and demonetization—are cautious to adopt an oops-could-accidents-will-happen and passive-accomplices-just-doing-their-jobs-should-be-excused account of law enforcement in the wrongful conviction and malicious prosecution of Brummer.

The ethics and efficacy of this moral-immunity approach to freeing the innocent Brummer convicted by hatred of lesbians, among other pathologies, are not convincing.


But there is another perpetrator beyond law enforcement in Brummer's case: Indifference.

To borrow from a critical study of totalitarian systems edited by Alan L. Berger:

If the many viewed indifference as an neutral act, [Norman] Cohn, on the other hand, points out its lethal quality. It was, he says, 'precisely the mixture of fanaticism of a minority with the indifference of the many that made possible the whole development from the first restrictions to the final extermination.' Indifference, far from being neutral, is always on the side of the executioner. (Cohn, Warrant for Genocide: The Myth of the Jewish World Conspiracy and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, (p. 200). Cited by Roger W. Smith, in Fantasy, Purity, Destruction: Norman Cohn's Complex Witness to the Holocaust in "Bearing Witness to the Holocaust 1939-1989" (p. 121), edited by Alan L. Berger.)

If the reader considers studies of totalitarianism in 1930s-40s Germany and conquered nations not relevant to Brummer's case, consider what a life sentence of incarceration would mean to someone you know wrongfully convicted of first degree intentional homicide in her young 20s, just months home after a five-year stint serving her country, (straight out of high school), in the U.S. Air Force.

As a Brummer advocate's signature on her emails reads: "There is no crueler tyranny than that which is exercised under cover of law, and with the colors of justice ..." - U.S. v. Jannotti, 673 F.2d 578, 614 (3d Cir. 1982)

An independent conviction integrity unit would have and still can free Penny Brummer and who knows how many other wrongfully convicted (and finally exonerated) Forest Shombergs, Ralph Armstrongs, Anthony Hicks, and Audrey Edmunds, or anyone black and in the wrong place at the wrong time in Dane County.

White papers on conviction integrity units include Conviction Integrity Units: Vanguard of Criminal Justice Reform and An Epidemic of Prosecutor Misconduct.

Writes Mark Godsey, (Daniel P. and Judith L. Carmichael Professor of Law, University of Cincinnati College of Law; Director, Center for the Global Study of Wrongful Conviction; Director, Rosenthal Institute for Justice/Ohio Innocence Project) on police, prosecutors as passive accomplices (my words):

What’s scary is how tenaciously police and prosecutors cling to their initial assumptions—and how much this reflects basic human tendencies. ...

It’s natural for police and prosecutors to want to ease public fears. And it’s also natural for them to stick with the evidence that supported their preferred explanations. As University of Wisconsin clinical law professor Keith Findley shows in his excellent 2010 article Tunnel Vision, the phenomenon 'is the product of a variety of cognitive distortions,' chief among them confirmation bias. In other words, we tend to give weight to evidence that confirms our existing beliefs. 'Although such confirmation-biased information is often less probative than disconfirming information might be, people fail to recognize the weakness of the confirming feedback they receive or recall,' Findley writes. He cites studies finding that 'police officers who are convinced that a suspect is lying are very resistant to changing their minds' and often 'rate disconfirming or exonerating evidence as less reliable or credible than guilt-confirming evidence that supports their initial hypotheses.'

I called Brandon Garrett, the law professor who wrote the book on wrongful convictions and why they happen, and he pointed out that police and prosecutors have no obligation to pursue alternative explanations, or even to follow a particular method of investigation or keep a record explaining the course they’re taking. Which means it’s close to impossible to hold them accountable for their errors. 

Errors and the indifference of the many. These features of American society ought instruct the creation of independent integrity units in every territorial law enforcement jurisdiction in the nation.

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