State inmates sentenced to death or life in prison out of Jefferson County could get a second look at their convictions under a new initiative aimed at righting wrongs of long ago.
Jefferson County Bessemer Cutoff District Attorney Lynneice Washington on Monday announced the formation of the Conviction Integrity Unit which will formally launch Jan. 11, 2021. The CIU will review cases of wrongful convictions for defendants convicted of certain Class A felonies and sentenced to life, life without parole or death in the Cutoff.
Additionally, Jefferson County District Attorney Danny Carr on Jan. 1 will launch the Conviction Review Unit in the Birmingham Division.
“The only way to effectively correct wrongs that were carried out by the criminal justice system in Jefferson County was to implement a review of wrongful conviction cases within both office, inclusive of the entire county,’’ Washington said. “The buy-in by the elected D.A. in Jefferson County-Birmingham was easy and both offices began to work on their units’ development.”
Washington began work on forming the CIU in late 2017. “When I first learned about CIU’s, it was just interesting reading. Then I realized I was in a position to change the lives of some people that may be wrongfully convicted in the Bessemer Cutoff area,’’ Washington said. “There is such a need for criminal justice reform. The time is now.”
Since deciding to tackle the issue of wrongful convictions, Washington has met with Barry Scheck and Nina Morrison of the New York Innocence Project, as well as Bryan Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery.
She said she learned of mounting numbers of innocent people who were convicted and spent years in prison until organizations as the Innocence Project reviewed their cases and worked with prosecutors in various states for re-trials and ultimate remedies that resulted in exoneration.
“It is often said that ‘one innocent person behind bars is one too many’, and there began a growing trend in the number of people identified as wrongfully convicted, but had already lost many years of their life in prison, separated from family and snatched of their dignity and hope,’’ Washington said. “As prosecutors, we are ministers of justice. We seek justice and we must do justice at all time.’’
The Conviction Integrity Unit (Bessemer Division) and the Conviction Review Unit (Birmingham Division) are the first of their kind in Jefferson County and in Alabama. Both units are supported by the Innocence Project in New York, EJI in Montgomery and fellow CIU’s in various states.
Though not officially kicking off until January, Washington said they have begun to look at two case that are outside the guidelines of the CIU. One is an old rape case out of Fairfield that was referred to Washington by the Innocence Project in New York and the other is a Hueytown murder case referred to them by the Georgia Innocence Project. “These are cases we have been reviewing or working on but not under the umbrella of a formalized CIU,” she said.
Under the CIU, cases will only be reviewed for inmates who are still in prison. Applications will be made available on a website or provided at the District Attorney’s Office in the appropriate jurisdiction. Applicants must meet all guideline criteria before submission of their application for review to avoid automatic denial, Washington said. “It is important that applicants understand that both offices are reviewing only cases based upon new, credible evidence with an assertion of absolute innocence,’’ she said. “This means that the person convicted must possess no criminal responsibility for the crime in which he or she was convicted.”
Currently there are 170 people on Alabama’s Death Row, with a couple dozen of those sentenced out of Jefferson County’s two prosecutorial divisions. Hundreds more have been sentenced to life or life without parole for violent crimes.
An investigator, a seasoned assistant district attorney and interns will do the intake of the applications to weed out those who don’t fit the criteria to have their cases reviewed. Once a case is deemed to fall within the guidelines for consideration, assistant district attorneys will review the case and ultimately present it to Washington or Carr for the final decision. They will carefully consider whether a case merits the time and manpower it will take to re-open.
“One thing I don’t want to do is have the name of a Conviction Integrity Unit and not give it the service it deserves because this is such an important unit and it’s such important work,’’ Washington said.
Washington said she doesn’t yet know the scope of wrongful convictions out of Jefferson County. “It’s hard to say, we do live in the South,’’ she said. “The fact is that technology has advanced, DNA has been enhanced. There’s so much now that we know that we didn’t know several years ago.”
“This is not meant to give police officers a black eye or insult them. Knowledge is power. The investigative techniques that were good then may have been improved now and we can establish best practices going forward,’’ she said. “It’s just to correct some wrongs that have been made.”