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Va. attorney general launches Conviction Integrity Unit to identify wrongful convictions

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 1/16/2021 Tom Jackman
Mark Herring wearing a suit and tie: Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring (D) formally announced plans to seek a third term Wednesday. (Steve Helber/AP) © Steve Helber/AP Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring (D) formally announced plans to seek a third term Wednesday. (Steve Helber/AP)

Virginia Attorney General Mark R. Herring (D) announced Thursday that he is launching the state’s first Conviction Integrity Unit, to identify and overturn wrongful convictions. Such units have been created in dozens of local prosecutors’ offices across the country and have participated in hundreds of exonerations, but only a handful of state attorneys general have started them.

Herring said in a news release that his office will eventually have three full-time attorneys and one investigator dedicated to examining possible wrongful conviction cases. And he noted that a law passed by the Virginia General Assembly last year expanded the pool of defendants who are eligible to challenge their convictions beyond just those who were convicted at trial of murder, kidnapping, aggravated malicious wounding or other serious felonies.

“Our goal as a Commonwealth must always be justice and truth,” Herring said, “not simply convictions, or preservation and defense of convictions in defiance of logic, facts, or new evidence. To wrongly convict a person is to deny them untold opportunities and the chance to live their life in freedom and to choose their own path.”

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In the past decade, 78 prosecutors and attorneys general have created conviction integrity or review units, according to the National Registry of Exonerations, and 461 people have been freed due in part to work by these prosecutors. More than 100 have occurred in the past two years. Some prosecutors have had dramatic results: Since 2018, the Philadelphia district attorney’s office under Larry Krasner has exonerated 17 people wrongly convicted of murder. And Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby has cleared 10 people serving murder or attempted murder sentences since 2016, including three men in one case who were arrested when they were 16 years old and served 36 years for a slaying they did not commit.

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But of the 78 conviction integrity units, 44 have not exonerated anyone so far. Officials said they were just beginning their reviews of cases or they had not yet found an appropriate defendant to support for exoneration.

a group of people posing for the camera: Alfred Chestnut, right, speaks outside a Baltimore courthouse in November after he, Andrew Stewart, left center, and Ransom Watkins, back center, were released and exonerated for a 1983 murder conviction allegedly caused by misconduct by Baltimore police and prosecutors. © Matt McClain/The Washington Post Alfred Chestnut, right, speaks outside a Baltimore courthouse in November after he, Andrew Stewart, left center, and Ransom Watkins, back center, were released and exonerated for a 1983 murder conviction allegedly caused by misconduct by Baltimore police and prosecutors.

Attorneys general in six states — Connecticut, Delaware, Michigan, New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania — have launched conviction review units, along with the attorney general in Washington, D.C., but most of them are new, as is a conviction review unit announced in October by Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison that has not started yet. No exonerations have been credited to any attorney general’s office so far.

Some big-city prosecutors, including in Los Angeles, Baltimore, San Francisco and Boston, have also announced the formation of sentencing review units. These units reconsider cases in which defendants were sentenced harshly to terms that wouldn’t be handed down today, and when the defendants have shown themselves ready to reenter society. Both conviction integrity and sentencing review units are seen as ways to address racial inequity and mass incarceration, the prosecutors said.

A growing group of prosecutors, who say the job is more than locking people up, wants to help free criminals, too

Virginia’s attorney general’s office has not always taken such a stance on wrongful convictions. After four sailors were convicted of raping and killing a woman in Norfolk in 1997 with no physical evidence, another man was identified whose DNA matched the killer’s, who pleaded guilty and said he acted alone. For years, the Virginia attorney general’s office fought the efforts of the “Norfolk 4” to clear their names, which only ended when then-Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) granted them absolute pardons in 2017. A Norfolk homicide detective, Robert Glenn Ford, who coerced false confessions out of the sailors, was later convicted of taking bribes from criminals and sentenced to 12½ years in prison.

Herring, who has been Virginia attorney general since 2014, noted that he joined a petition by Keith Harward to have his wrongful conviction overturned in 2015. Harward served more than 33 years for a rape and murder conviction based on now-discredited bite-mark testimony. “When the system gets it wrong,” Herring said, “when the system fails to deliver justice, we have to say so and we have to fix it.”

Herring said adding an investigator to the unit will expand its ability to identify potential cases for review. “Instead of relying on law enforcement agencies who may have been involved in the original investigation,” Herring said, “the Unit will now be able to conduct more independent investigations that help get to the truth of someone’s guilt or innocence.”

No city or county prosecutors in Virginia have conviction integrity units. Steve Descano, the Fairfax County commonwealth’s attorney, said, “The attorney general’s office is best positioned to meet this critical need in our justice system because its resources far exceed those of local prosecutors.” Descano said the attorney general’s unit "will bring closer the day when no resident of the commonwealth is stuck behind bars for a crime they did not commit — a vital step toward the more fair and equitable criminal justice system that Virginians deserve.”

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