The Ulster County District Attorney’s Office has formed a Conviction Integrity Unit to review cases with an eye towards identifying instances where an innocent person may have been convicted for a crime they didn’t commit.
The unit will review cases referred to them by the legal community and the public and, if warranted, reinvestigate them.
“The concerns here are obvious,” said District Attorney Holley Carnright. “And there have been so many advances in [investigative and forensic] science, it’s a good opportunity for us, in cases that warrant review, to have a chance to do so using those techniques.”
The unit includes senior representatives from the DA’s office, defense attorneys Tom Melanson and Cappy Weiner, Ulster County Sheriff Juan Figueroa, Kingston Police Chief Egidio Tinti and community activist Theresa Widmann. Referrals to the unit will be reviewed by a unit coordinator reporting directly to the DA. If the coordinator finds a legitimate issue of innocence, the case will go before the full committee. The committee will then develop a detailed action plan to re-examine the case. The committee is authorized to order a full reinvestigation of the case or forensic testing of evidence using techniques that were not available at the time of the conviction. As an additional protective measure, the full committee will meet twice a year to look at cases that were found to be without merit by the unit coordinator.
Carnright said the unit would focus on cases where the convicted person claimed they were actually innocent of the crime, rather than “wrongfully convicted” based on flawed legal procedure. In appellate courts, defendants can claim wrongful conviction based on things like a judge giving improper instructions to the jury or prosecutors failing to turn over relevant evidence without actually asserting innocence. Appeals courts, however, do not routinely authorize new investigations or forensic testing absent some demonstrated flaw in the legal process leading to conviction.
“The appellate process deals with what [evidence] was there at the time and was that sufficient to support a conviction,” said Carnright. “Generally, it’s not the defendant saying, ‘I’m really innocent.’ It’s ‘my lawyer screwed up, the judge screwed up, my sentence was unfair.’”
Carnright said the unit’s formation was not spurred by any particular case or complaints about his office or local police agencies. Rather, he said, it was created in recognition of advances in forensic science and recognition that, despite safeguards, checks and balances, mistakes happen.
“This office has a duty to provide every safeguard to assure that only the guilty suffer the consequences of a criminal conviction,” Carnright wrote in a statement announcing the unit’s formation.
The announcement comes as Carnright prepares to step down after 12 years as Ulster County DA. His chief assistant, Mike Kavanagh, is running to succeed him. Kavanagh faces a challenge from Kingston-based litigator Dave Clegg, who is running on a reform platform that stresses rehabilitation and “restorative justice” for non-violent offenders. Clegg said he welcomed the formation of the unit and would continue and possibly strengthen it if elected.
“This is something I’ve been talking about all along,” said Clegg. “I guess they heard me.”