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Some surprising new allies have emerged in the legal battles around the country to free individuals wrongfully convicted of crimes.
Police officers and prosecutors, who have often seemed uncomfortable with the rapidly growing number of exonerations of convicted criminal defendants, are increasingly playing critical roles in securing those exonerations.
According to figures compiled by the Registry, a joint research project of Michigan Law School and Northwestern University’s Center on Wrongful Convictions, that’s a dramatic change. Of the 1,195 exonerations since 1989, police and prosecutors cooperated in just 30 percent of them.
This trend may reflect some major changes in crime-fighting strategy.
“Prosecutors and police rely on science and technology more than ever before in investigating and trying cases, ” says Julie Selsberg, senior assistant attorney general in the Colorado Attorney General’s Office and head of its Justice Review Project, which identifies individuals convicted of violent felonies who might be exonerated by DNA testing.
“As law enforcement relies more on advances in science and technology to convict the guilty, we must also acknowledge the tremendous power of technology to free the innocent.”
A Trend in the Making?
It is too early to tell whether the trend will continue, but current data show that police or prosecutors cooperated in 43 percent of the exonerations we know about so far in 2013 (17 out of 40).
The Registry report does not distinguish cases in which only police or only prosecutors cooperated in the exoneration, but rather looks at law enforcement cooperation as a whole. Prosecutors are more visible and are usually necessary for an intervention to be effective, but it is often difficult to determine which actions were taken by whom in the course of a reinvestigating a wrongful conviction.
Police and prosecutors are said to have cooperated in an exoneration when they reinvestigate a case in light of new evidence of innocence or assist in a defense investigation, or when they state that they believe a convicted defendant is factually innocent. Prosecutor cooperation also includes cases in which the state moves to dismiss charges against the convicted defendant or affirmatively joins in a defense motion for dismissal.
If this rate is sustained, 2013 will be second only to 2012 in the level of law enforcement cooperation in exonerations.
What explains this increase in police and prosecutorial support for exoneration?
It is due in part to the recent creation of Conviction Integrity Units in several large and medium-sized prosecutorial offices. Created to prevent false convictions and to review and reinvestigate post-conviction claims of innocence, these units now exist in district attorney’s offices in Dallas County, Santa Clara County (San Jose), Kings County (Brooklyn) and Cook County (Chicago), among others.
Another likely factor is the cumulative effects of state laws that permit post-conviction DNA testing, and in some cases direct prosecutors and police to cooperate in obtaining them.
Among exonerations with law enforcement cooperation, the degree of official support varies.
In some cases, prosecutors and police officers were entirely responsible for clearing the innocent defendant’s name. Johnathan Moore, for example, was exonerated of murder after detectives from the Aurora, IL Police Department received information from a confidential source indicating that another person was responsible for the crime.
Without any involvement from the defense, the detectives reinvestigated the crime, interviewed new witnesses, and became convinced of Moore’s innocence.
The Kane County state’s attorney then provided the Illinois Innocence Project with the new evidence and filed a motion to vacate the conviction. The police detectives who reinvestigated the case, John Munn and Darrell Moore, were named the Aurora Police Department's 2012 Employees of the Year for their work in exonerating Moore.
Change of View
In other cases, law enforcement officers strenuously opposed re-investigation for years, but ultimately changed their view.
Michael Morton served nearly 25 years in prison after being wrongly convicted of murdering his wife Christine. He was exonerated in 2011. For years after Morton’s conviction, the Williamson County District Attorney opposed defense efforts to obtain DNA testing of crime scene evidence and forced Morton’s attorneys to file a Public Information Act request to obtain access to the prosecutor’s file. That file contained evidence of Morton’s innocence that had been withheld at trial, including a bloody bandana found at a construction site near the crime scene, police reports indicating that Morton’s son – who was home when his mother was killed - told police the murderer was “not his daddy”, and records showing that Christine Morton’s credit card was missing and that a woman had tried to use it in a San Antonio jewelry store
When the defense finally managed to obtain DNA tests, the results proved that another man—Mark Norwood—was responsible for the murder. Only then did the district attorney’s office join in the reinvestigation, and help defense investigators link Norwood to another, similar murder that took place after Morton was already in prison.
Whether law enforcement was central to an exoneration or merely made a late concession in the face of strong evidence of innocence, in all of these cases, prosecutors or police officers contributed to the process of obtaining the exoneration and concurred in that outcome.
Selsberg, whose Justice Review Project led the exoneration of Robert Dewey in 2012, expects that official cooperation in exonerations will continue to increase.
“I have received numerous phone calls from prosecutors’ offices across the country seeking guidance in setting up conviction integrity units,” says Selsberg.
“As ministers of justice, our obligation to society is not limited to convicting the guilty. It also includes protecting the innocent from wrongful conviction – and correcting those terrible mistakes when they do happen.”
EDITORS’S NOTE: For tables showing the increased involvement of officials in securing exonerations, please click HERE.
Alexandra Gross is a writer and researcher at the National Registry of Exonerations. Maurice Possley, a veteran journalist now based in California, and a longtime contributor to The Crime Report, is senior researcher at the National Registry of Exonerations. They welcome readers’ comments.