U.S. Attorney Machen Announces Formation Of Conviction Integrity UnitInitiative Follows Comprehensive Review Of Older Cases
WASHINGTON – U.S. Attorney Ronald C. Machen Jr. today announced the creation of a Conviction Integrity Unit in the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia, promising a vigorous effort to identify and investigate cases that resulted in wrongful convictions. The unit also will make recommendations about ways to improve training, investigations, and prosecution practices to ensure the integrity of future convictions.
The unit will review cases in which defendants convicted of violent felonies can proffer new evidence that merits reconsideration, including those in which DNA testing of biological material may establish actual innocence. Cases will be reviewed by experienced prosecutors and investigators, who then will determine if further action is needed.
“As prosecutors, our goal is not to win convictions, but to do justice,” said U.S. Attorney Machen. “Although wrongful convictions remain a rare phenomenon, their consequences are tragic – for the defendants involved, for the victims of the crimes that remain unsolved, and for the community we work every day to protect. This new unit will work to uncover historical injustices and to make sure that we are doing everything in our power to prevent such tragedies in the future.”
This is the first Conviction Integrity Unit created within a U.S. Attorney’s Office. A number of prosecutors’ offices nationwide have established such units in recent years, including the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office and the Dallas County District Attorney’s Office.
Today’s announcement follows a four-year review by the U.S. Attorney’s Office of more than 2,000 files involving FBI analysis of hair or fiber evidence. That review was done in the wake of the exoneration of Donald Gates, who was convicted in 1982 of a rape and murder in part on the basis of testimony involving hair evidence. DNA testing – which was not available at the time of Mr. Gates’s trial -- proved in 2009 that he was not the perpetrator.
Over the past several years, the U.S. Attorney’s Office has devoted thousands of hours – including the hiring and assignment of additional staff – to link FBI files documenting hair and fiber analyses to any actual criminal prosecutions that resulted from the investigative work.
More than 100 cases, all prior to 2000, were identified in which convictions were obtained by guilty plea or at trial. A task force of veteran prosecutors then reviewed these matters, and identified one case that recently led to the exoneration of Kevin Martin, who was convicted in 1984 of taking part in a rape-murder. The in-depth reviews of these decades-old cases required enormous effort. The task force consisted of 30 Assistant U.S. Attorneys, who carefully reviewed case-related materials from the courts and law enforcement agencies to assess whether the use of hair or fiber evidence was material to the conviction. The office is sharing results of its work with defense counsel, as well as the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project.
In addition to Mr. Gates and Mr. Martin, the U.S. Attorney’s Office joined in a request for a certificate of innocence for a man who was convicted in 1981 of rape, armed robbery, and other charges; DNA evidence, which was not available at the time of trial, established that he was not the attacker. The U.S. Attorney’s Office also agreed to vacate the conviction of a man who was convicted in 1981 of felony murder while armed and armed robbery, based largely on testimony involving hairs found on a stocking mask that was located near the scene of the crime. DNA evidence conclusively showed that the hair found in the stocking cap did not belong to the defendant. In that case, the U.S. Attorney’s Office also consented to vacate the conviction of a co-defendant whose conviction was materially affected by the hair found in the stocking cap.
Throughout the four-year review, the U.S. Attorney’s Office reached out to leaders of the local defense bar, reinforcing its commitment to working with defense counsel on cases where previously unavailable DNA testing methodologies might produce profiles from existing biological crime scene evidence that could support a viable claim of innocence.
Now, in designing the Conviction Integrity Unit, the U.S. Attorney’s Office is seeking to establish a program that is both backward and forward-looking, combining a review of existing convictions with an analysis of data to determine ways to improve training, investigation, and practices.
The unit will be part of the office’s Special Proceedings Division, which handles all post-conviction litigation in both the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia and the Superior Court of the District of Columbia. The unit’s work will be reviewed by a Conviction Integrity Committee, which also will focus on developing better prosecution practices and training.
The review process will include an examination of all materials relating to a defendant’s original conviction, as well as an investigation into the integrity of new evidence proffered by the defendant. The review will recommend whether relief is warranted, such as vacation of the conviction and the issuance of a certificate of actual innocence. Final recommendations are to be submitted to the Conviction Integrity Committee and the U.S. Attorney for approval.
In cases leading to exoneration, the U.S. Attorney’s Office will work to identify the actual perpetrators of the crimes at issue, particularly when DNA evidence is available.
The Special Proceedings Division most commonly responds to motions alleging ineffective assistance of counsel, prosecutorial misconduct, and newly discovered evidence. The Division also responds to motions for release filed by defendants found not guilty by reason of insanity, habeas petitions challenging the actions of the U.S. Parole Commission or the Bureau of Prisons, motions to seal arrest records, and post-sentence motions filed under the Innocence Protection Act and the Sex Offender Registration Act.14-201