Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams has established a new group within his office that will exclusively handle the review of cases with “legitimate” post-conviction claims of innocence.
During a press conference Tuesday at the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office, Williams announced the creation of the Conviction Review Unit (CRU), led by homicide prosecutor Mark Gilson, to investigate claims of innocence stemming from homicide and other serious cases. Williams said his office looked to the Pennsylvania Innocence Project for input on the unit’s development.
While the CRU will be devoted to investigating good-faith claims of innocence, Williams said, it should not be seen as an easy way for criminals to be exonerated.
“This is the right thing to do. It is my job to uphold justice, but let’s be clear, this is not a get-out-of-prison-free card for convicted felons,” Williams said. “While we are looking at these cases with an open mind, it does not mean that we will agree with all or any new claims of innocence or evidence; Mr. Gilson will also be working to protect valid verdicts of guilt.”
Williams said gun violence and homicides get widespread media attention, “but allegations of wrongful convictions get more.” In that vein, he noted that the unit would be a step in the right direction toward helping restore public trust in the criminal justice system.
The CRU differs from the district attorney’s Post-Conviction Relief Act unit in that it deals only with claims of outright innocence, Gilson told The Legal.
“The PCRA unit handles all cases post-conviction. Most of them deal with cases coming back because of ineffective assistance of counsel,” Gilson said. “Not all deal with claims of innocence.”
Gilson, who has been a Philadelphia prosecutor for 27 years, explained that many PCRA unit cases, while not dealing with wrongful-prosecution claims, deal with DNA evidence or discovery issues.
Since the establishment of the Pennsylvania Innocence Project five years ago, Gilson said the District Attorney’s Office has seen more innocence claims coming its way.
“As [cases] have been coming back over the past five years, there was really no mechanism to deal with them in the DA’s office,” Gilson said, adding that the CRU “was developed in response to the Pennsylvania Innocence Project.”
The unit is a work in progress, Gilson said, and both he and Deputy District Attorney Jodi Lobel will be reaching out to prosecutors across the country with similar units to develop best practices for the CRU, including staffing requirements and investigative methods. Gilson said there is no indication yet as to when the office will be fully staffed.
Marissa Bluestine, legal director of the Pennsylvania Innocence Project, said she looks forward to working with the CRU to help evaluate claims of actual innocence.
Bluestine noted that 33 of 87 known exonerations nationwide occurred with the cooperation of law enforcement.
She added, “Conviction reviews by prosecutors can achieve justice for crime victims as well as the convicted innocent while identifying [the] true perpetrators who had escaped justice.”
The state of wrongful convictions in Philadelphia is no worse than in any other city, Bluestine told The Legal, but it is also no better.
Additionally, Bluestine said the cases her organization reviews go through a multi-tiered vetting process to ensure that claims of innocence are in fact legitimate.
The Innocence Project referred 10 cases to the District Attorney’s Office in 2013 and Bluestine said she anticipates at least three more will be sent to the CRU this year.
“I think there’s recognition that the cases we bring are different; we don’t bring a case unless we’ve done our research,” Bluestine said.
Because law enforcement has access to greater investigative resources, Bluestine said the CRU’s review of innocence claims may help the organization to vet those claims.
“Part of my hope in working with the DA’s office is that we will gain access to information we didn’t have before, maybe changing our minds to believing that the person was correctly convicted.”
Criminal defense attorney and former Philadelphia prosecutor William Spade said he believed the creation of the CRU would be beneficial to all parties involved in wrongful convictions.
“It’s better that 99 guilty people go free than for one innocent man to go to jail, and I really believe that. Especially if someone is on death row or serving a life sentence for something they didn’t do,” Spade said.
“I would think that if I was the family member of the victim of crime,” Spade continued, “I would want to make sure that the right person was punished for it.”
Spade added that additional review from the District Attorney’s Office in post-conviction cases is a positive measure.
“In regard to whether there’s an overlap to the PCRA unit, the more the better,” Spade said. “If you’re really trying to weed out an injustice, then I think you throw as many resources as you possibly can at it.”