Back in the mid to late 1980’s law enforcement and prosecutors started using the new technology of DNA testing to solve crimes. Soon thereafter, criminal defense attorneys recognized that DNA testing can not only help solve crimes but can also be used to exonerate individualswrongly accused or convicted of a crime. Very soon thereafter, in 1992, the Innocence Projectwas founded and since that time has, using DNA evidence, succeeded in challenging the conviction of over 350 wrongfully convicted individuals, 20 of whom were on death row.
As it became evident that there are hundreds, or more likely thousands, of wrongfully convicted individuals serving time, many prosecutors across the country, including the Orange County District Attorney Office, have taken up their own mantel to identify individuals whom their office has wrongfully convicted. Usually called a “conviction integrity unit”, but also known as “wrongful convictions unit”, or as in Orange County a “convictions review unit”, these departments are charged with reviewing claims of innocence from those who were convicted in each respective county. There are critics of the conviction integrity units, of course, including the founder of the Innocence Project, Barry Scheck. Concerned that these units are just window dressing, Mr. Scheck and others believe many are not committed to the task they claim to serve.
But some conviction integrity units have indeed identified and exonerated individuals whom their office previously and zealously charged with a crime. One recent high-profile and rather strange example concerns Valentino Dixon, who was convicted in New York state of a murdercommitted in 1991. Now 48 years old, Mr. Dixon spent 27 years in state prison. During his time in prison, he drew golf course scenes which were both vivid and luxurious even though Mr. Dixon had never set foot on a golf course. Mr. Dixon’s golf-scapes eventually led to his exoneration for the murder, which he did not commit. How he came to draw these beautiful scenes is another story, but the punchline is that the editors at Golf Digest saw his work and profiled it in the magazine.
Taking an interest in this inmate’s talent, some of the folks at Golf Digest began to look into the inmate’s case. They discovered that the case was sloppily prosecuted and with the enlistment of other interested parties and media attention, the inmate’s claim of innocence gained traction. As it turns out—or the cynical view is that, because of the media attention—the new district attorney in the New York county, Erie, where the inmate had been convicted, professed an interest in wrongful convictions. The Erie County District Attorney’s Wrongful Convictions Unit located and interviewed witnesses and reviewed the evidence from the trial 27 years ago. Prior to their efforts, Mr. Dixon’s claims of innocence went unheeded. His appeals failed, his petition for pardon was not answered by the governor of New York, and he had no legal recourse to right his wrong conviction. While the attention from Golf Digest certainly got the ball rolling, it was the wrongful convictions unit that ultimately determined that Mr. Dixon’s claims were true. Another man since confessed and has pleaded guilty to the crime.
These units have been effective, not only in Mr. Dixon’s case, but in other cases across the country. By 2016, 225 individuals had been exonerated through the work done by county prosecutor’s conviction integrity units. As the number of these units rise in the country so do the number of individuals identified as being wrongfully convicted.
Between the Innocence Project and other similar organizations and the recent rise of conviction integrity units, I am encouraged that fewer innocent people will spend time in prison for a crime they did not commit. However, despite the introduction of conviction integrity units, the district attorney still has a job to do: to prosecute those charged with a crime. Sometimes, the defendant is innocent and if the conviction integrity unit cleans that up later, the innocent individual still suffers an unfair fate. As an Orange County criminal defense attorney with 25 years’ experience and a passion for preserving my clients’ rights under the law, I fight to ensure my client is not unfairly treated by our justice system.
Orange County criminal defense attorney William Weinberg offers a complimentary consultation about your criminal matter. Contact him at his Irvine office by calling 949-474-8008 or by emailing him at email@example.com discuss your options.