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San Diego County district attorney launches team to review possible wrongful convictions

San Diego County Dist. Atty. Bonnie Dumanis is formalizing her office's efforts to review troublesome convictions by creating a team of two full-time prosecutors to investigate claims of innocence.
(Nelvin C. Cepeda / San Diego Union-Tribune)

Uriah Courtney, convicted of a rape he didn’t commit, walked out of prison an innocent man after eight years behind bars.

Twenty-one years after a jury found Kenneth Marsh guilty of beating to death his 2-year-old son, he was told the case against him was dismissed.

The men are two of the most notable examples in recent history of wrongful convictions in San Diego County, and Dist. Atty. Bonnie Dumanis believes there could be more.

That’s why, she says, she is formalizing the office’s efforts to review troublesome convictions, creating a team of two full-time prosecutors to investigate claims of innocence where verifiable, credible evidence exists or where there is new technology or evidence to run DNA tests.

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Named the George “Woody” Clarke Conviction Review Unit, the effort honors the former local prosecutor and judge who pioneered such post-conviction work.

Although these kinds of efforts have been embraced by the office for several years, the move to a formalized unit offers the public a direct line of communication to prosecutors.

Convicts, their families and tipsters can now submit an application to have a case reviewed via the district attorney’s website, www.sdcda.org. Applications will be accepted only in writing.

“We recognize that despite our goal of pursuing justice and truth, in a few instances new evidence is discovered and in some cases, mistakes are found,” Dumanis said in a news conference Wednesday. “As prosecutors, our legal, moral and ethical obligation is to ensure the right person is convicted for the crime charged.”

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The unit is already looking at about 10 cases.

The work will be done in coordination with the public defender’s office and the California Innocence Project at California Western School of Law. Both applauded the district attorney for her willingness to give convictions a second look.

“As good as our system is, as much checks and balances as we have, people do slip through the cracks,” said Public Defender Henry Coker. “Things look like what they’re not, and lives are lost in that process.”

Justin Brooks, director and co-founder of the California Innocence Project, said the district attorney’s office has been at the forefront of a nationwide sea change recognizing it is possible to put innocent people in prison.

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“It’s all of our job together to right these wrongs,” Brooks said. “It should be done in a way that’s not about pointing fingers but getting the right result.”

Claims of innocence must meet a certain threshold for review: The conviction must have occurred in the San Diego County Superior Court, the convict must still be serving the sentence, the crime must have been a serious or violent felony, there must be credible and verifiable evidence of innocence, and the convict must be willing to cooperate with the process.

Prosecutors said they realize they would likely be inundated with requests that don’t fit the criteria, but they promised to look through each application for cases that should be reviewed. If the circumstances don’t fall into their jurisdiction, they said they would pass the request along to the appropriate person.

The unit will be led by Deputy Dist. Attys. Bryn Kirvin, who has served as the office’s ethics coordinator, and Brent Neck, who for the last five years has worked as the office’s liaison to the Innocence Project.

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The emergence of DNA technology has been the biggest game changer when it comes to reopening old cases.

Since 1989, DNA has led to the exonerations of 337 people in the U.S., according to the Innocence Project. Twenty of those people had served time on death row.

Prosecutors and police in San Diego didn’t really start working with DNA in their cases until 1992, and even then it was a new science.

When DNA exonerations began to really make headlines around the country in 2000, then-Dist. Atty Paul Pfingst wondered whether the same thing could happen in San Diego.

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Led by Clarke, a DNA expert who was part of the O.J. Simpson prosecution team, and prosecutor Lisa Weinreb, a team identified about 750 prison inmates who were convicted before 1993 and who maintained their innocence.

But the team discovered DNA testing wouldn’t help shed light on many of the cases, and DNA evidence was just not available for many others. In the end, offers were made to seven inmates to have DNA tested. Two refused, one of them being former California Highway Patrol Officer Craig Peyer, who was convicted of murdering a female motorist. Testing on the other five cases did not end in exonerations.

The district attorney’s office has come a long way since then by getting real-time updates on DNA hits. It is one of the first in the nation to link its case management system with the state’s DNA database. For instance, if someone is arrested on a robbery charge, and his DNA matches DNA collected from an old rape case in which someone else was convicted, that could potentially exonerate the person who is actually doing time for the crime.

DNA set Courtney free in 2013. He was accused in 2004 of grabbing a 16-year-old girl from behind and raping her in Lemon Grove, about eight miles east of San Diego. She told investigators that shortly before the attack, she saw a man staring at her from a light-colored truck with a camper shell. She and a witness helped create a sketch of the man.

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That led investigators to Courtney, who already had a checkered past.

The victim identified Courtney as her attacker, and a jury convicted him. DNA testing was done at the time without conclusive results.

Years later, Courtney’s family pushed to have the victim’s shirt retested for DNA, recalling testimony that the attacker had laid his head on her shoulder during the assault. The results came back — to a different man who bears a striking resemblance to Courtney.

Marsh’s case was different. When his son died from head trauma, Marsh said the boy fell from the sofa. Medical experts believed the injury was too severe to have come from that short of a fall, and suspicion fell on Marsh.

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He was convicted largely on medical testimony.

In 2002, his attorneys filed a writ saying he was wrongly convicted, and Dumanis, upon reviewing the case, decided the case was no longer provable beyond a reasonable doubt and asked a judge to dismiss it.

Dumanis said that although the two cases are the most notable examples, dozens more cases have been dismissed before conviction, as new evidence surfaces pointing to innocence.

kristina.davis@sduniontribune.com

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Davis writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.


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