Conviction Integrity Units: Lessons of Actual Innocence and the Value of Conviction Integrity
The Dallas Morning News reported that the Innocence Project of New York is selling T-shirts as a fundraising effort for their New York organization. The T-Shirt (pictured above) lists the names of three Dallas County exonerated individuals, including James Giles, Patrick Waller and Charles Chatman. There are multiple independent innocence project organizations across the country, each with its own structure and funding source, however they all share the same primary mission- to facilitate the exoneration of wrongfully convicted persons by providing legal research and representation and DNA testing, all of which carry an extremely high price tag.
These innocence organizations work directly with inmates and when possible, with county conviction integrity units. Dallas County is one of the few city’s to have a Conviction Integrity Unit within the prosecutors office, actually the first of its kind. The focus of the unit is to select and review cases where the convicted is claiming actual innocence and grant an agreement for relief in such cases of innocence. Russell Wilson served as the supervisor of the Dallas County Conviction Integrity Unit from 2011-2014, during which time he oversaw the successful exonerations of 13 men.
Over the summer, Wilson presented a selection of his paper at the State Bar of Texas’s Advanced Criminal Law Seminar in San Antonio, TX on the subject of Conviction Integrity. He highlighted the history of conviction integrity units across the country, the standards and procedures used by units to select and evaluate cases, the legal standard for actual innocence as well as the impact units can have when choosing to decline or accept a case. The public rightfully applauds when an innocent man goes free, however, Wilson also addressed the flipside of exonerations, drawing attention to the victims’ anguish. Victims place a tremendous amount of confidence in the result of the legal proceedings, and thus an exoneration means the real perpetrator has not been caught or punished. Wilson emphasized that the “circle of justice” must be closed by vigorously pursuing actual perpetrators where possible, as the prosecutor’s duty is to see that justice is done. Lastly, he shared his thoughts on the main purpose of conviction integrity units, stating “…the units assist in restoring credibility in a criminal justice system that historically lags in advancement and improvement of the quality of justice that our citizens deserve,”- urging his colleagues to integrate these lessons into their approach to criminal justice.
Although back in private practice, Wilson continues to play a vital role in the wrongful conviction crusade through consulting on cases and lecturing on the matter. Wilson also serves on the board of the Innocence Project of Texas.
On September 25, Wilson will speak at the Northern California Innocence Project’s symposium- In the Interest of Justice: Conviction Review Programs.