By Marisa Gerber
April 22, 2015
Citing a rise in wrongful-conviction claims by inmates, the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office is launching a unit of veteran prosecutors to review the integrity of past convictions, joining a small but growing number of prosecutorial agencies around the country devoting resources to identify innocent prisoners.
Dist. Atty. Jackie Lacey is asking county supervisors for nearly $1 million to fund the new team, which would include three prosecutors, a senior investigator and a paralegal.
In seeking the funds, Lacey’s office said it wanted to keep up with an increasing number of wrongful-conviction claims that have followed the advent of similar units around the country, a growing number of innocence projects and heightened publicity surrounding innocence claims, county spokesman Dave Sommers said.
Innocence project groups and others hailed the move, saying that it would send a dramatic statement that the office is serious about reversing injustices and could spur the creation of similar units in smaller counties across California.
“This is exactly what should happen in every district attorney’s office in America,” said Justin Brooks, director of the California Innocence Project at the California Western School of Law in San Diego. “We all have the same goal: to make sure the right people are in prison.”
Although such units are still rare, Los Angeles would join more than 15 district attorney offices around the country that have created such teams, including Dallas County, Brooklyn and Manhattan, N.Y., as well as the U.S. attorney’s office in Washington, D.C. In California, district attorneys in Santa Clara, Ventura and Yolo counties have established similar units.
Los Angeles’ proposal remained largely under wraps until last week, when Lacey addressed a group of attorneys and students at Loyola Law School on Friday and mentioned that she had been promised funding for a conviction review unit. She gave no details and did not return calls for comment.
A district attorney’s spokeswoman declined to discuss the plan until after the Board of Supervisors formally approves the funding in coming weeks. The county’s recommended budget includes money for the unit for the next fiscal year, which starts in July.
The proposal comes after a string of high-profile wrongful convictions.
Last month, the city of Los Angeles agreed to pay more than $8 million to Obie Anthony, who was declared factually innocent after spending 17 years behind bars for a killing outside a brothel in South Los Angeles.
In October, a judge threw out the murder conviction of Susan Mellen, saying that she was wrongfully imprisoned for 17 years based on the word of a habitual liar and adding that “the criminal justice system failed.”
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