Our Conviction Integrity Conference (October 29, 2014) is in the books. The conference program and CLE materials will be available for a bit longer here. Over 400 people registered for the conference and saw 7 top prosecutors discuss the hows and whys of their conviction integrity units, as well as a diverse set of speakers stressing the need for conviction integrity review and a panel of experts explaining common causes of wrongful convictions. We were incredibly pleased with how it all went, and we hope to make videotapes of the panels available to those who were unable to attend.
Below is an adapted version my opening remarks for the conference.
WHY THIS CONFERENCE
Thank you for being here. When we at the Center on Wrongful Convictions (CWC) conceived this conference about a year ago, we were intrigued by the formation of so-called Conviction Integrity Units (CIUs) in prosecutors’ offices. There were two relatively new CIUs in Illinois – here in Cook County and up in Lake County – and a handful of others we knew about around the country that were doing very visible work. We wanted to learn about how these units were being set up, and we felt we could contribute to the conversation because, after all, we have been reviewing wrongful conviction claims for 15 years.
Today, this conference could not be better timed. There are now roughly 20 CIUs nationwide, some of which were formed this year. Likewise, we keep reading about convictions that have been vacated as a result of the hard work of CIUs – including two just yesterday in Dallas and two earlier this month in Brooklyn. Representatives from both of those offices are here today.
What is going on here? Why this CIU fever? Well, if you think about it, it is part of a continuum that began in 1989, the year of the very first DNA-based exoneration, that of Gary Dotson here in Illinois.
Following that, the 1990s saw a dramatic rise in DNA testing as a means of proving both guilt and innocence, and a much broader awareness of the prevalence of wrongful convictions. In response, defense-based projects formed that focused on representing people with innocence claims. By the year 2000 there were already 10, including the CWC, and today there are 56 such projects. In that same period, from 1989 through today, the National Registry of Exonerations recorded 1,465 exonerations. Most of these, I might add, were not based on DNA evidence. As these wrongful convictions were discovered, we learned things. It turns out that not all confessions are true, not all eyewitness identifications are accurate, not all scientific testimony is valid, and the adversary system does not always reveal the truth. Many times it does, but not always. Those of us in the CWC and other projects talked a lot about these issues, often rather loudly. We frequently felt we weren’t be being heard by the people who mattered.
But obviously, many prosecutors were listening. Starting with Dallas County in 2007, and gaining momentum in this decade, we have begun seeing formalized conviction review units within prosecutors’ offices. Some of these units also work on developing best practices to avoid future wrongful convictions. Maybe 20 isn’t a huge number, but this growing trend represents the very best impulses of those who work in the criminal justice system.
Which brings me to you all. This is, easily, the most “diverse” audience of any CWC event we’ve ever hosted – “diverse” in the sense of your differing roles in the criminal justice system. Look around you, and you may see:
- Prosecutors from county, state, and federal offices
- Public defenders on both trial and appellate levels
- The private defense bar
- Attorneys whose work focuses on wrongful convictions
- The civil bar, including, attorneys who work on both sides of civil rights litigation
- Police officers, other law enforcement investigators, and private investigators
- The judiciary is represented in this room
- Persons who have been wrongfully convicted, and crime victims, are also represented
- Professors and students – after all, this is a law school
- And last but not least, interested members of the public
WHAT WE HOPE TO ACCOMPLISH TODAY
Just by getting you all in the same room together, we have accomplished one of the goals of the conference. Will we all agree on everything? Of course not. Everyone here has a critical, but distinct, role in the process. You won’t agree with all of today’s panelists, and they won’t all agree with each other. But the other goal here is to take time out from the day-to-day grind, in an atmosphere of mutual respect, and learn from each other and perhaps gain some new perspectives. That being said, I believe I can safely say that everyone in this room does agree on this: people should not go to prison, or remain in prison, for crimes they didn’t commit. That’s what brings us together today – that, and 3.5 hours of CLE credit.
On a personal note, I am certainly very proud of my job and my organization, but the folks in this room I have tremendous respect for are the ones working on the front lines, day in and day out, investigating crimes, bringing dangerous criminals to justice – and to balance that out, testing and challenging that very same evidence, and ensuring that due process, individual liberties, and other important safeguards of justice are observed. I am also very gratified that the CWC is well on the way to achieving an improved working relationship with our local prosecutor’s office and with other offices around the country. This benefits not only our clients, but the criminal justice system as a whole.