We seek to right past wrongs to make the entire system more fair and accountable.
The Conviction Integrity Unit of the District Attorney’s Office is charged with investigating problematic past convictions for credible claims of actual innocence, wrongful conviction and, where feasible, sentencing inequities.
In doing so, prosecutors in this unit strive to increase transparency, integrity and trust in the criminal justice system, holding publicly accountable those who abuse their positions of authority.
When warranted through their investigation, unit prosecutors work to reverse unjust sentences resulting from government misconduct.
CONVICTIONS INTEGRITY UNIT: PHILADELPHIA’S HISTORY
Our prosecutors investigate wrongful convictions and review unjust sentences.
The criminal justice system nationwide—including here in Philadelphia—can get it wrong. Horribly wrong, with devastating impacts.
Faulty convictions due to error or malfeasance on the part of officers, prosecutors, defense lawyers and judges can result in imprisoning innocent people for years, while allowing guilty parties to go free, further endangering the public.
For a long time, the only people dedicated to addressing these severe miscarriages of justice were innocence projects and a handful of defense lawyers. That was until about 15 years ago when district attorney offices across the country started to recognize the inherent responsibility of prosecutors to seek justice and right past wrongs, even those errors or wrongs committed by “one of their own.”
District attorneys started to set up dedicated special units run by office prosecutors—most commonly known as Conviction Integrity Units. The first was in Dallas, and one of its four leaders was Patricia Cummings.
District Attorney Krasner recruited Cummings within a month of his inauguration, demonstrating this Office’s clear commitment to righting past wrongs and, where warranted, holding former prosecutors and law enforcement officials accountable. This has resulted in 14 exonerations since 2018.
CONVICTIONS INTEGRITY UNIT: OUR APPROACH
The end goal of conviction integrity is to ensure justice, that the right person is convicted and procedural justice was honored.
CIU prosecutors review old cases for overlooked evidence, eyewitness misidentification, junk science, false confessions, unreliable incentivized testimony, police or prosecutorial misconduct and ineffective counsel.
As they conduct this review, they assess how these wrongful actions may have influenced the outcomes of not just individual cases, but sometimes whole groups of cases. This can be an extremely lengthy process that involves investigating multiple convicted offenders’ claims of innocence, wrongful conviction and sentencing inequities.
Many wrongful convictions involve some form of government misconduct. According to the National Registry of Exonerations, in some cases, government officials take steps to ensure that a defendant is convicted despite weak evidence or even clear proof of innocence.
One common form of misconduct is a Brady violation – a situation where favorable information that supports a defendants’ case, including exculpatory evidence that could even result in their exoneration, is withheld from the defendant’s legal team at the time of trial.
Also, in recognizing that junk science contributes to wrongful convictions, prosecutors turn to advancements in DNA testing, and forensic science in general, to obtain tools to assist them in their quest to determine the outcome of a prior conviction was faulty and unreliable.
In cases where a person was wrongfully convicted, prosecutors in this unit take corrective action as quickly as possible.
The Philadelphia CIU is currently developing easier ways to submit requests to review cases – the vast majority of current requests come from unrepresented individuals still serving prison sentences with limited access to digital tools.
CONVICTION INTEGRITY UNIT: BEYOND EXONERATIONS
Our Conviction Integrity Unit also reviews cases for unjust or excessive sentencing.
Under Pennsylvania law, the legal remedies for challenging an unjust or excessive sentence in court are limited and narrow. However, recently the Board of Pardons and the Governor of Pennsylvania started reusing its enumerated clemency powers of compassion and mercy set out in the Pennsylvania Constitution to commute excessive sentences in deserving cases.
Pursuant to a new Pennsylvania statute, requiring prosecutor input in those cases that go before the Board, the CIU, in keeping with the District Attorney’s goals of ensuring public safety and ending mass incarceration, seeks to assess each individual clemency petition on its merits, leveraging evidence-based research and tools to assist in that assessment.
Ultimately, CIU prosecutors conduct a holistic review of all the circumstances of a clemency or commutation petition rather than routinely opposing relief based solely on the nature of the crime.
Of the 14 prisoners statewide who have had their life sentences commuted and were released in 2019 (more than the combined number of the past three gubernatorial administrations), nine were from Philadelphia.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, the Board of Pardons recently recommended seven life sentences from Philadelphia advance to the Governor for commutation of those sentences.
Information gathered through CIU investigation cases supports the development of office-wide policies, protocols and training to help prevent future wrongful convictions and disparate sentencing.
Faces of Injustice: Theophalis Wilson
On June 9, 2020, Mr. Wilson was exonerated after serving 28 years in prison for triple murders that took place in 1989 when he was a teenager.
Throughout his ordeal, he maintained his innocence, but was unable to get anyone to listen until the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to do away with mandatory life-without-parole sentences for children, entitling him to a resentencing hearing.
Mr. Wilson’s resentencing lawyer reached out to the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Convictions Integrity Unit, which uncovered 40,000 pages of documents from the prosecutor’s file that were not disclosed at the time of the original trial. The documents revealed concealed exculpatory evidence, as well as a secret deal in exchange for the testimony of the sole witness who had recanted in 2013.
Faces of Injustice: Chester Hollman III
In July 2019 Mr. Hollman was exonerated for the 1991 murder of a University of Pennsylvania student.
Working with the Pennsylvania Innocence Project and Mr. Hollman’s defense attorney, our CIU team helped overturn the conviction. Charges were dropped and Mr. Hollman was fully exonerated.
Mr. Hollman’s conviction relied heavily on the false testimony of two witnesses who later recanted their version of events. Once the police and prosecution files were reopened for closer examination of the case files, it was clear there were major inconsistencies with timing, as well as other witness testimonies and evidence pointing to other individuals—critical information that was improperly withheld from Mr. Hollman’s defense attorney at the time.
CONVICTIONS INTEGRITY UNIT: SUPERVISOR PROFILE
Patricia Cummings: Leading with Integrity
Patricia Cummings, one of the nation’s top experts on innocence, exoneration and fair sentencing, is righting past wrongs in a city with a history of prosecutorial misconduct and rampant civil rights violations by officers.
Supervisor Cummings has been living up to her reputation for standing for justice throughout her 30-year career as an attorney, mostly representing adults and juveniles charged with crimes.
With the support of the District Attorney, Supervisor Cummings expanded the unit team to more than quadruple the original number of prosecutors and staff. With greater support from top leadership and the word definitely out that the conviction unit is “the real thing,” the CIU has been flooded with review requests.