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Critics say DA’s Conviction Review Unit is “no longer functional”

May 16, 2019 Noah Goldberg
Activists with the group Families of the Wrongfully Convicted rallied outside the Brooklyn District Attorney's office Thursday. Eagle photo by Noah Goldberg.
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Activists and defense lawyers rallied outside the Brooklyn District Attorney’s office on Thursday to criticize the process through which old convictions are reviewed and sometimes overturned — a process they say has lost steam since 2017.

The group Families of the Wrongfully Convicted, along with lawyers from the Legal Aid Society, argued that the Conviction Review Unit — established in 2014 under the late Brooklyn DA Kenneth Thompson — lacks transparency and leaves cases in limbo for years with no decisions made.

“The Brooklyn Conviction Review Unit is broken,” said Lonnie Soury, a co-founder of Families of the Wrongfully Convicted. “We believe that it is keeping many cases in limbo. We understand that only three cases in the last two and a half years have been overturned.”

The Brooklyn DA’s website shows that four people have had their convictions overturned since the beginning of 2017. Twenty-one convictions were overturned from 2014 to 2017.

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Eighty cases that have not been decided on are currently before the CRU.

Families of the Wrongfully Convicted was cofounded by Derrick Hamilton, who had his own murder conviction overturned by the CRU in 2015. “My experience with the CRU has been fantastic because I was exonerated. But the experience I’ve witnessed with others is that there’s no transparency,” Hamilton said.

Legal experts have praised the achievements of the unit, calling it one of the best in the country. “The Brooklyn DA’s Conviction Review Unit is one of the path-breaking conviction integrity units in the country,” Samuel Gross, senior editor at the National Registry of Exonerations, told the Brooklyn Eagle. “They’ve done an extraordinary job of investigating old murder convictions with innocent defendants, mostly without the help of DNA evidence — and they’re committed to using input from outside the prosecutor’s office.”

Oscar Michelen, a litigator who has worked to get clients exonerated in Brooklyn, agrees that Brooklyn’s CRU is one of the best in the country. “They have the largest staff of any CRU. Eric hasn’t cut the budget. He hasn’t downsized the unit,” he said.

There were 33 conviction integrity units across the country in 2017, according to a study by the National Registry of Exonerations.

Kevin Smith, who accused a high-ranking staffer of the DA’s office of prosecutorial misconduct in his own murder case from the 1970s, has had his case in front of CRU for five years. He is currently out on parole, but would like to see his conviction overturned.

Smith believes the one eyewitness in his case was coerced into testifying at his trial.

In a candid conversation with Smith after the rally, Oren Yaniv, a spokesperson with the Brooklyn DA, told the convicted murderer that the CRU fully looks for any evidence that would point toward a convict’s innocence.

“We look for something that we could use in our work for that. Sometimes, 30 or 40 years after the fact, it’s hard to find that. Sometimes we look at cases and we will say, ‘We don’t love that, but we need to find something.'”

Smith asked Yaniv why the CRU did not just reject his application.

“In some cases, we’d rather keep it open and see if we can still find something,” Yaniv told him.

Elizabeth Felber, the supervising attorney with the Legal Aid Society’s Wrongful Conviction Unit, said that the CRU started out with great promise, but she agreed that the recent slowdown is worrisome. “In 2018, no one was exonerated at all,” she said.

“The Brooklyn District Attorney’s Conviction Review Unit is the national model for reviewing wrongful convictions,” a spokesperson for the DA’s office said in a statement. “This fully staffed unit pours over evidence, including interviewing witnesses, visiting crime scenes, and reviewing voluminous court transcripts to do justice. Its conclusions elate those who are exonerated and, naturally, disappoint those who aren’t. We remain fully committed to exonerating those who have been wrongfully convicted.”

Update (4:15 p.m.): This article has been updated with a quote from Oscar Michelen.

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