D.A. creates unit to review claims of innocence

Drawing attention to mistakes of the past might seem like an incongruous goal for the district attorney's office. But Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Jackie Lacey said her office's new conviction review unit will only improve its reputation for truth-seeking.

Creating a unit to investigate claims of innocence shows that the pursuit of truth trumps any potential embarrassment that could result from the exoneration of a prisoner her office helped put behind bars, she said.

"You should not allow your ego to get in the way of changing a poor decision," Lacey said Monday during a news conference. "My office will not turn away from its duty to look at new, credible evidence that suggests a mistake was made."

Lacey's office joins more than 15 prosecutorial agencies across the country — including Manhattan, N.Y., the U.S. attorney's office in Washington, D.C, and a handful of district attorneys' offices in California — that are working to identify innocent prisoners. The new unit will review claims of innocence and investigate those that meet certain criteria. Although the announcement was met with widespread praise, some legal experts said the office should expand the types of cases it will consider.

Experts said the move will probably influence other agencies across the state to adopt similar practices.

"It's a great step forward," said Adam Grant of Loyola Law School's Project for the Innocent.

The conviction review unit — "the CRU," Lacey called it — will comb through letters, screening for cases that fall within its strict criteria. The unit will only examine cases of people currently incarcerated for serious or violent felonies who make claims of actual innocence, Lacey said. It won't consider claims of self-defense or incompetent legal counsel. The unit also will not review claims from anyone who confessed, Lacey said.

After an initial screening of letters, cases will go through a second level of review, Lacey said. Ultimately, a committee of department managers will decide whether to vacate charges.

Some legal experts said the decision not to review claims from those who confessed could eliminate the opportunity to exonerate someone who was coerced to falsely admit guilt.

Deirdre O'Connor, who leads Innocence Matters, a nonprofit organization dedicated to preventing and overturning wrongful convictions, said people sometimes plead guilty to a crime to avoid the risk of a lengthy sentence.

Still, O'Connor praised the new move and said she expects the criteria will evolve.

Monday's announcement followed the Board of Supervisors' approval last week of nearly $1 million for the unit, which Lacey said will pay for three prosecutors, a senior investigator and paralegal.

Some district attorneys have hired lawyers with a defense background to head their units — a move that some legal experts say gives the leader autonomy and fresh perspective. Lacey said she considered that route but ultimately decided against it.

"Prosecutors have a mandate to seek the truth," she said. "Defense attorneys have a mandate to defend their client no matter what the evidence shows."

She selected a 22-year veteran of the district attorney's office, Assistant Head Deputy Ken Lynch, who was previously a supervisor in a gang unit.

Obie Anthony, who was freed from prison in 2011 after 17 years behind bars, said the new unit sends a message to prosecutors: "There is some accountability," he said.

Anthony was convicted of a 1994 murder outside a brothel in South Los Angeles. In 2011, a judge overturned the conviction, concluding that the prosecution's main witness — a pimp — lied to the jury about getting a clear look at the gunman.

Anthony said chills ran through his body as he thought about other wrongfully convicted people who might not lose as many years as he did. It's a sign, he said, that the office that fought to put him in prison is finally ready to "right the wrongs."

"Integrity is coming back through the pipeline," he said. "It's a beautiful move by the district attorney."

People can send claims of innocence to: District Attorney's Conviction Review Unit, Attn: AHD Ken Lynch, 320 W. Temple St., Los Angeles, CA 90012.

marisa.gerber@latimes.com

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