BLADIMIL ARROYO was sentenced to 20 years-to-life in a New York prison for murder, attempted robbery and assault. In February this year he was let out thanks to the efforts of the local government that had put him away 18 years ago. His conviction was overturned after the Brooklyn district attorney’s conviction review unit (CRU) found that he had been deprived of a fair trial, in part because not all of the detectives’ notes had been shared with the defence. Mr Arroyo was the 25th person to have his conviction quashed by Brooklyn’s district attorney (DA) since 2014.
That year Ken Thompson, a previous DA, expanded the unit, which until then had only investigated troublesome convictions on an ad-hoc basis. Its first task was to investigate 100 potentially wrongful convictions in cases mostly related to a particular disgraced detective. The unit, the largest in the country, has since become a model for other jurisdictions. With a budget of $1m, the team retraces steps, tracks down witnesses, including those in other states or behind bars, and sorts through mounds of evidence. Seasoned lawyers are assigned to the unit. The findings are then considered by an independent review panel made of volunteer lawyers not affiliated with the DA. Blame is not necessarily assigned, but the details of how the authorities failed the defendant are made public.
In Mr Arroyo’s case, Eric Gonzalez, Brooklyn’s current DA, published a 43-page report detailing all the missteps and problems. The report also spells out lessons learnt. Overturning wrongful convictions has changed the DA’s office procedures and training. An exoneration “makes everyone stop and pay attention and learn lessons”, says Mr Gonzalez. Most of the overturned convictions have been for murders, but burglaries and rape convictions have also been rubbed out. Mr Gonzalez says that his lawyers’ “obligation as prosecutors doesn’t end when we get a guilty plea or when we get a guilty verdict.” Miriam Krinsky, a former prosecutor and head of Fair and Just Prosecution, a network for reform-minded district attorneys, says all this helps makes Brooklyn’s CRU the gold standard.
More than 30 jurisdictions across the country have set up similar units. In fact they are becoming the norm in large urban district-attorney offices. According to the National Registry of Exonerations there were 58 exonerations in 2018 that can be attributed to CRUs. John Hollway, of the University of Pennsylvania’s Quattrone Centre, says the culture has shifted from “why would you have one” to “why don’t you have one?” In the past month two more states, Michigan and New Jersey, launched units. Gurbir Grewal, New Jersey’s attorney-general, says the prosecutors are on board: “no one wants an innocent person behind bars.” Mr Grewal has also created a statewide cold-case unit.
“We should have a criminal-justice system that promotes human dignity,” says Brooklyn’s Mr Gonzalez. It seems to be working: one exonerated man was so grateful to Brooklyn’s CRU that he invited the team and Mr Gonzalez to his wedding.