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District attorneys work to right past wrongs

Avery Bleichfeld
District attorneys work to right past wrongs

Suffolk County District Attorney Rachael Rollins announced Sept. 7 that she is looking to vacate the rape charges against Tyrone Clark, a Massachusetts prisoner who was convicted in 1974.

The steps are part of the efforts of the Suffolk County Integrity Review Bureau (IRB), an independent division within the DA’s office tasked with reviewing claims of innocence and wrongful convictions in past cases prosecuted by the DA.

Clark was convicted in 1974 on charges of rape, kidnapping and robbery. According to the DA’s assent to the defendant’s motion for a new trial, in a letter to the parole board the victim of the rape said, “I am no longer absolutely sure that my identification was correct.”

Rollins is also seeking to vacate the rape charges because important evidence — the victim’s underwear and the perpetrator’s semen — have been lost or destroyed.

According to the filing, “where the only forensic evidence that had the potential to exonerate the Defendant was inadvertently destroyed by the Commonwealth (or its agents), the conviction should be vacated. … The United States Constitution, the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights, and any sense of fairness calls for such a just outcome and, for this reason, the Commonwealth assents to the Defendant’s motion.”

According to a press release issued by Rollins’ office, both the robbery and kidnapping charges would still stand.

The IRB does the work of a conviction integrity unit (CIU), organizations often within DA offices across the country tasked with looking at past cases to verify that the convictions were just and free from mistakes, whether intentional, through negligence or the produced by systems burdened with many cases at once.

Jessica Weinstock Paredes, the Denise Foderaro research scholar at the National Registry of Exonerations (NRE), said CIUs are a relatively recent step taken by DA offices across the country. The NRE collects and analyzes information on the exoneration of innocent criminal defendants in the United States since 1989 and records it in a database.

According to data released by the NRE, five CIUs were founded before 2012. Since then, the NRE has recorded the founding of 78 CIUs across the country, 35 of which have recorded at least one exoneration.

That trend spiked in the past three years, with about 47% of the CIUs for which the NRE has a recorded founding date having started their work since 2019.

Weinstock Paredes said CIUs have also become more diverse in the structure of their organization.

“Traditionally, a few years ago, they were all housed in district attorney’s offices, and we’re seeing more and more state attorney’s offices fund units; there are a couple independent units in smaller jurisdictions that are staffed with community panels, retired judges and Supreme Court justices from that state,” Weinstock Paredes said.

There also are several units that Weinstock Paredes said have existed for a while but recently revitalized their efforts.

“There’s a change of guard, a new district attorney gets elected, and they sort of revamp or restaff or reinvest in the initiative and then you might see a more aggressive approach to reviewing wrongful convictions, and we’ve seen that in a number of units,” Weinstock Paredes said. “So, you know, that might be a unit that’s technically been around for a decade or a little less but is only now putting the inertia behind the effort to do the work and produce results.”

The Suffolk County DA’s office said that its Conviction Integrity Program (CIP) is one such instance of a revitalized unit. The office said that under previous administrations many claims of wrongful conviction were sent through the appeals process rather than the CIP, which was founded in 2012. The office said those claims now fall to the Integrity Review Bureau.

Under Rollins, the county’s IRB was founded in 2019. Beyond conviction integrity, the bureau also encompasses efforts to support other forms of integrity in the process, including its Law Enforcement Automatic Discovery database, which records law enforcement personnel whose past actions could impact their credibility as witnesses in court proceedings.

According to the Suffolk County DA’s office, the IRB has received 77 applications from individuals convicted in Suffolk County and has worked with 10 individuals to provide relief. The DA’s office said they are currently investigating five cases.

Since 2012, the NRE attributes four exonerations to Suffolk County’s program, Weinstock Paredes said that due to its background as an academic group, the NRE has specific and conservative criteria in defining exonerations.

Only two CIUs in the group of nine have more than 15 exonerations to their name: Kings County, New York, with 33 exonerations and Cook County, Illinois, with 124.

Richard Cole, who was co-chair of the Massachusetts Conviction Integrity Working Group organized by the Massachusetts Bar Association, said that exonerations are only one of many metrics that can be used to evaluate the performance of a CIU.

Cole said it is also important to consider what policies the DA’s office has regarding the unit. For instance, does the CIU have the ability to look at the original files and evidence? Does the discovery of a wrongful conviction instigate efforts to prevent the same errors from happening again? And is there general transparency to the organization’s policies and procedures?

He also said a lot of a CIU’s effectiveness and success relies on the ability of the teams within the DA’s office prosecuting crimes and those working to exonerate prisoners to work together.

“There are a number of evaluative metrics, in a way, to make that judgement, but part of this … is, are the innocence and defense bar able to work collaboratively and believe that there is actual transparency in the interactions and believe that there is real effective screening and review of cases that are brought to their attention?” Cole said. “They may not always agree on the results, but trusting that the prosecutorial office is open to making a judgement that there was an error … that led to a wrongful conviction.”

Much of that speaks to the fact that the responsibilities of CIUs within DA’s offices may go beyond just looking at past cases. They could include looking to shift the office culture.

Weinstock Paredes said these units often also work to commute sentences and lead trainings on best practices to increase the integrity of new convictions, rather than just looking at previous cases. She also said that low numbers of exonerations may not indicate a less effective unit, due to a host of other factors.

With President Joe Biden’s nomination of Rollins for the role of U.S. attorney for Massachusetts, the DA said in a statement sent to the Banner that she hopes the IRB will continue to do its work in Suffolk County, and that every prosecutor’s office should have a program tasked with reviewing practices and case outcomes.

“In order to ensure trust in the integrity of the criminal legal system, we must always be willing to look back to see if we got it right,” Rollins said. “And if we didn’t, we must correct past wrongs.”

conviction integrity, rachael rollins, Suffolk County District Attorney, Suffolk County Integrity Review Bureau, wrongful conviction