Tuesday, August 01, 2017

Conviction Integrity Units a Texas innovation gone national

Without a doubt, creation of the nation's first Conviction Integrity Unit (CIU) at a District Attorney's office was the most important legacy of former Dallas DA Craig Watkins' brief but eventful career as a Texas prosecutor. Check out a feature in The Atlantic praising the CIU in Philadelphia. This was a Texas innovation which has been mimicked far beyond our borders:
Today there are about 30 units, largely clustered in the Northeast, California, and Texas, according to Hollway. Roughly half were created after 2013, and their track records vary: Since the Philadelphia unit was created in 2014, Thomas’s case is the first and only one it’s thrown out. By contrast some of the most robust—such as those in Dallas, Houston, and Brooklyn—have thrown out dozens.
Conviction Integrity Units in Texas have mostly usurped the old model of innocence clinics at law schools, which are these days responsible for a tiny fraction of the total discovered innocence cases compared to what comes out of the CIUs.

16 comments:

Anonymous said...

Background Reading for the nerdly...

http://moritzlaw.osu.edu/students/groups/osjcl/files/2017/04/15-Scheck.pdf

Anonymous said...

Arguably, Craig Watkins didn't create the so-called "Conviction Integrity Unit" if he simply "usurped the old model of innocence clinics at law schools" for propping up his election campaign. Promises, promises.

While "dozens" of wrongful convictions have been corrected, there are probably "hundreds" that should have been corrected. And certainly Watkins did nothing to prevent future wrongful convictions from happening. Were any Dallas Prosecutors prosecuted for Brady Violations? Nope.

But everybody gets an "attaboy!" for a job half done.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Arguably, 5:48, your comments are stupid and false. Watkins DID create the first CIU. And as of late, those have been FAR more effective than the law-school based clinics in Texas, which haven't generated many exonerations lately after an initial flurry. The volume is now coming from the CIUs, by far.

Have they overturned every false conviction? Of course not. But the false convictions they have rectified wouldn't have been resolved without them in most instances. Not sure what you imagine is the benefit of allowing the perfect to become the enemy of the good.

Anonymous said...

I was never a fan of Watkins. He always came off as primarily a self-serving opportunist, which is neither unusual or particularly noteworthy among elected DAs. But he didn't package it particularly well. With the exception of the CIU, he didn't provide much benefit to either the office or Dallas County. And he was never particularly involved with the opperations of the CIU in Dallas. But clearly, with the creation of the CIU, Watkins did an extremely good thing. In creating the CIU, he came up with a structural mechanism for DA offices to comply with the requirement of the criminal code, that "[i]t shall be the primary duty of all prosecuting attorneys, including any special prosecutors, not to convict, but to see that justice is done." These are pretty meaningless words without some structure to implement them. The CIUs may be imperfect, but they create the necessary structure.

Anonymous said...

Grits-

"usurped the old model of innocence clinics at law schools"...those were your words, your definition. So you may want to rethink the personal attack. Watkins simply gave it a name, first. And of course, a glass half-full is better than no glass at all. But the concept of the CIU was created only because the judicial criminal system has numerous flawed players which goofed up the conviction the first time, creating the wrongful conviction -- either through ineffective investigations, inept attorneys, unscientific analysis, perjury, or other malicious self-serving interests from the players. If the players were more careful, ethical, honest, intelligent, and humble then maybe wrongful convictions wouldn't be as prevalent. There wouldn't be the dire need for CIUs. (Rarely is the wrongful conviction discovered solely by the newer DNA technology. Typically, there are several other preventable human-"errors" involved per wrongful conviction). Fix the problems upstream of the wrongful conviction, and the CIU becomes a null point (Watkins promised to point out the erroneous players thereby deterring future bad behavior, but did not.)

Measure twice, cut once.

More importantly, is there a reason why the Public Defenders Offices (or Innocence Clinics) are not in charge of the CIU instead of the Prosecutions Office? The DAO may be in a better position to get the full case file and find Brady Material, but as has been stated many times, the DAO often has ulterior motives for not pursuing claims wrongful convictions (which is why the glass is only half-full, and not 80-90% full). The shadowy question mark that follows the CIUs is a deterrent for being as effective as possible, and the chase for exoneration seems more of a Defenders objective.

Give the Public Defenders the case files, and the budget, and I bet more wrongful convictions would be discovered.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

@9:30, when I said that I meant the primary role of seeking exonerations has shifted to the CIUs and the clinics aren't doing much anymore - at least in terms of volume of cases. You see "usurp" as a negative. But since the clinics aren't securing many exonerations anymore, I WANT someone to "usurp" that role.

In answer to why Public Defenders don't handle these cases, there are multiple reasons. E.g, most counties do not have PDs, and in those that do, the PD is not elected and so cannot enact such initiatives of their own accord. Also, if the PD thinks someone is innocent, they still must convince the prosecutor. If prosecutor comes to that conclusion, exoneration is all but inevitable. More wrongful convictions might be "discovered" by the defense bar, but more exonerations occur because the CIU is in the prosecutor's shop.

Jennifer Laurin said...

The reputation of the Philly CIU is very poor, at least among folks who take seriously the reform mission of CIUs. The Unit deserves to be made an example in good essay in the Atlantic, but the point of the example should be that CIUs vary greatly in their efficiacy and Philly's is pretty much an example of how not to run one. Great topic. But lots of missed opportunities in the article.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Fascinating, Jennifer, thanks for your comment. Can you either elaborate or point us to relevant criticisms of the Philly CIU?

Jennifer Laurin said...

Grits, I don't think there's been anything published criticizing the office. My sense of the unit's reputation is really based on conversations with practitioners who work with the office, including in particular folks who have been involved with trying to negotiate exonerations. If you check out the Quattrone Center's report on CRUs/CIUs from last year, it takes the view that a sincere CRU should be independent of an office's appellate division, and then uses Philly as an example of a unit that is, instead, embedded *in* the appellate division. And it's that institutional structure that might contribute to the complaints I've heard - that the CRU folks have a conviction *protection* mindset. To be fair, the Quattrone Report also discusses the reasons that folks in Philly give for choosing that institutional arrangement.

Steven Seys said...

A personal anecdote: when Watkins was sworn in as DA I sent him a letter requesting he look at my case. He referred me to TIPOT in Waco. For four years TIPOT strung me along, then quit my case in 2011. There is a lot of testable evidence held by the Grand Prairie Police Department that was collected in my case. Any one piece, but especially the knife, would give up the perpetrator's identity. But the lawyers are universally reluctant to obey the law in my case. I believe that you have touched the truth, the exposure of the known use of perjury and other misconduct would be embarrassing to them, so instead they choose to perpetuate injustice.

Anonymous said...

Steven Seys -

It sounds like that request may have been handled before Dallas County's CIU was created.

This is the process now (copied from the CIU's webpage):


Q: How can my case, or the case of my loved one, be reviewed by the CIU?

A: You or your loved one may write a letter to the CIU requesting review of the case. Your letter should include the name of the defendant, the cause number, your contact information (preferably a mailing address and phone number), and specific information of why your case is one of actual innocence. The letter must be mailed to:

Conviction Integrity Unit
Dallas County District Attorney’s Office
133 N. Riverfront Blvd., LB 19
Dallas, Texas 75207

All received letters go through an initial review process. If the CIU makes a preliminary decision to re-open an investigation into the case, your request will be placed on our waiting-list in the order it was received. If we are unable to re-open an investigation into the case, we will refer you or your loved one to an innocence project or the Dallas County Public Defender’s Office.

Steven Seys said...

I have done this. I was assigned to the Public Defender, who sat by and allowed the state to have its way in my motion. Not once did she write a document to put before the judge, not even the initial motion. Her intent can be construed from her actions, by serving as gatekeeper, she ensured that none of my words would reach the bench, therefore she intended for the cause to fail.

Anonymous said...

@StevenSeys-

Post the names of the people who were supposed to help you - the PD, the Judge, etc. Maybe the negative press will light a fire under their asses. There's nothing worse than a public servant not serving the public.

Anonymous said...

Steven Seys -

With the appointment of the new Dallas County DA earlier this year, the organization at the CIU has changed. There is a new chief and new staff attorneys. It might be worth asking again for a review.

Anonymous said...

@5:33-

The Dallas CIU does even less now than they ever have. Check the statistics. They had no exonerations in 2015 after having 25 in the preceding seven years. And they've only had 1-2 in the last 2 years. Of course, there's no report on how many cases they've actually pursued in the past few years either. Maybe there's fewer exonerations because there is less time devoted to investigations.

Anonymous said...

@8:12 -

The rate of exonerations is driven (in large part) by the rate of review requests, and the availability of exculpatory evidence. Dallas worked through the clear and easy DNA-based exonerations a long while ago. What that leaves is going to be more difficult and potentially ambiguous cases. So, I'm not sure that the rate of exonerations is a meaningful indicator.