As the number of exonerations of innocent people through the use of DNA and other types of reliable evidence continues to mount nationally, more and more prosecutors’ offices are taking steps to ensure the right person is put on trial. District attorneys across the country are focusing on “conviction integrity” by honing pre-arrest procedures and focusing on gathering as much evidence as possible. The district attorneys in Philadelphia and Montgomery County have taken particularly progressive and public roles in these initiatives.
For example, in Montgomery County, District Attorney Risa Vetri Ferman has put her office’s resources to use in doing it right from the beginning. She has updated the training for prosecutors and detectives in her office, implemented new guidelines for evidence collection and retention and is encouraging police within her jurisdiction to adopt best-evidence-based practices that minimize the risk of arresting innocent people and prosecuting them for crimes they did not commit. Similarly, in Philadelphia, District Attorney Seth Williams has completely overhauled the charging unit, encouraging veteran prosecutors to work with police before charges are even brought.
These initiatives are welcome, encouraging and past due. Focusing on conviction integrity is an acknowledgement by the highest elected officials in criminal justice that our system is imperfect and in need of reform, that mistakes have been made in the past and that no one wants them repeated. We know of many ways to prevent wrongful arrests from occurring; prosecutors and law enforcement agencies across the country and all over the world are examining methods that have been used for decades and finding them wanting. No one wants to imprison someone for a crime he or she did not commit — not a prosecutor, not a police officer, not the victim.
This is why much of the work done by the Pennsylvania Innocence Project and its supporters focuses on preventing wrongful convictions. By working with police and prosecutors, we are able to have an honest discussion about improving our criminal justice system. As Ferman has pointed out before, everyone engaged in law enforcement wants to use the best techniques available so that they “do things with integrity and ethics, so that we can trust in the outcome.”
One area that has led to a troubling number of wrongful convictions has been the cases where those charged with ensuring integrity and trust failed to meet their obligations — whether intentionally or through neglect. For example, in a case out of New Orleans, John Thompson was put on death row for a homicide he did not commit. His exoneration came about when Morgan Lewis & Bockius attorneys Michael Banks and J. Gordon Cooney uncovered the physical evidence that had been intentionally withheld by the prosecutor. After he was exonerated of all criminal liability in the two crimes for which he was convicted, Thompson brought a civil rights suit against the prosecutors in federal court. In 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court vacated his $14.5 million jury verdict, finding that the prosecutors enjoyed immunity from suit.
The Pennsylvania Innocence Project, in partnership with area law schools, is taking part in a national program aimed at generating policy ideas in the aftermath of this decision. The program, “Prosecutorial Oversight: A National Dialogue in the Wake of Thompson v. Connick,” is scheduled to take place October 1, the first day of the Supreme Court’s new term. The program is intended to open dialogue and explore possible policy reforms to prevent prosecutorial misconduct.
Mistakes by prosecutors have played a role in the wrongful conviction of many of our citizens; we cannot continue to ignore this reality, although we respect the work and devotion of prosecutors to serving the public. The national dialogue is a first step in developing policy initiatives to support prosecutors in their work and protect innocent people in the process. As we begin to re-examine the ways that crimes are investigated and prosecuted, we need to consider all aspects of our system to ensure justice is achieved.
Marissa Boyers Bluestine is the legal director for the Pennsylvania Innocence Project.