Crime & Justice

Los Angeles prosecutor sets up unit to investigate innocence

LADA: District Attorney Jackie Lacey briefs the media on the new Conviction Review Unit while Assistant Head Deputy Kenneth Lynch looks on.
LADA: District Attorney Jackie Lacey briefs the media on the new Conviction Review Unit while Assistant Head Deputy Kenneth Lynch looks on.
Courtesy of L.A. County District Attorney's Office

The Los Angeles district attorney says she is creating a unit that will review wrongful conviction claims.

District Attorney Jackie Lacey said Monday that the conviction review unit will join nearly two dozen other prosecutors' offices nationwide that review claims of innocence.

"As prosecutors, we have a legal obligation and an ethical mandate to ensure that the right person is convicted for the crime charged," Lacey writes in an opinion posted on the DA's website.

Lacey says three of her deputies will be assigned to investigate cases where new evidence casts doubt on a conviction.

The unit will only look at cases where someone who has always maintained their innocence is behind bars for a serious or violent felony.

Claims can be brought by inmates, attorneys or groups that seek to exonerate those who were wrongly convicted.

Lacey says prosecutors will seek to have cases thrown out if they decide they have lost faith in a conviction.

Here's how the process will work, according to Lacey:

  1. The unit will do an initial review of claims of actual innocence and newly discovered evidence.
  2. If a claim meets the initial criteria, it moves to a second level of review and the law enforcement agency that prosecuted the case is notified.
  3. If the claim passes the second level, a formal investigation is opened; a deputy district attorney and investigator review trial transcripts and evidence and interview witnesses; the victim’s family is notified of the review.
  4. A final presentation is made to the Conviction Review Committee, a group of managers led by the Chief Deputy District Attorney.
  5. If the committee decides the office has "lost faith in the conviction," the DA's office seeks to have it vacated.

Findings of innocence have most often come through the formal appellate court process, requiring an inmate and his or her legal team to file "mountains of legal paperwork," according to Lacey.

"The less formal conviction review process will allow us to consider compelling facts outside the established judicial system. It also will help us ensure that these claims receive the appropriate level of scrutiny and consideration by my office," Lacey writes.