In 1997, brothers Melvin and George DeJesus were convicted of murder in Oakland County Circuit Court and sentenced to life without parole. Throughout their trial and imprisonment, they maintained their innocence but were unable to seek redress until almost 25 years later, when newly discovered evidence exonerated the brothers.1
Wrongful conviction stories like Melvin and George DeJesus are nothing new. Since 1989, there have been 3,178 recorded exonerations,2 led primarily by non-profit organizations like the Innocence Project and defense attorneys. But an unlikely participant has joined these efforts: prosecutors’ offices.
It may seem antithetical for a prosecutor’s office to actively seek to overturn a conviction, but with the rise in exonerations and shifts in rules of professional conduct, prosecutors’ offices have taken a proactive role in responding to these issues. One notable response has been the creation of conviction integrity units (CIU) — a dedicated and independent department within a prosecutor’s office tasked with the responsibility of preventing, identifying, and remedying false convictions.3 While relatively new, the impact of CIUs is being felt across the nation and here in Michigan.
HISTORY OF CIUS IN THE U.S. AND MICHIGAN
One of the first CIUs in the United States was established by the Dallas County Prosecutor’s Office in 2007. The impetus for its creation was a record 12 exonerations in less than a decade4 which put Dallas County at the top of the nation’s prosecutors’ offices with the highest number of wrongful convictions. Under the leadership of a new district attorney, Dallas County created its CIU to identify, address, and correct the root causes that led to this flood of wrongful convictions. Dallas County’s CIU continues to investigate wrongful convictions, and its model has been replicated across the nation.
As of June 2022, there are 94 CIUs nationwide, including five in Michigan.5 Michigan’s first CIU was established in 2018 in Wayne County6 and shortly thereafter, Attorney General Dana Nessel created a statewide CIU to support prosecutors’ offices outside of Wayne County.7 In the last two years, Macomb, Oakland, and Washtenaw counties created their own CIUs.
Wayne County’s CIU has led the way in exonerations and new trials, with 29 individuals receiving relief as of fall 2021.8 Detailed exoneration statistics for Michigan and the nation, including demographic and case information, can be found on the National Registry of Exonerations Interactive Data Display.9 Additionally, the registry provides an extensive array of reports and graphical data that offer an in-depth picture of exonerations across the United States.
PROCEDURE FOR REQUESTING REINVESTIGATION OF CASES
Pursuant to the Michigan Rules of Professional Conduct (MRPC), prosecutors have an ethical obligation to take corrective action when newly discovered evidence calls a conviction into question.10 Corrective action means disclosing and investigating material evidence and seeking to remedy a wrongful conviction when new evidence establishes a defendant’s innocence.11 CIUs create a formal framework for facilitating this review process and ensuring compliance with the MRPC.
Each of Michigan’s CIUs has established procedures and protocols for reinvestigating a case.12 The claimant must meet specific eligibility requirements and the request for review must be submitted in writing. The eligibility criteria for CIU review are fairly consistent throughout the state: a person seeking review must have been con victed of a crime in Michigan or the county in which they are requesting review; must present a claim of actual innocence; and the claim must be supported by new evidence that was not presented at trial or on appeal.13 Additionally, most counties require that all appeals be final.
Once the claimant has filed a written application that meets the eligibility requirements, the CIU will investigate the claim and, if substantiated, refer the case to the prosecutor, who may then initiate the process for granting relief.
TOOLS FOR CIUS
As CIUs continue to develop, a shared understanding of best practices is crucial to their success. To facilitate the sharing of information, the Quattrone Center at the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School has created a Conviction Review/Integrity Units Resource Center.14 The center aggregates resources for new and existing prosecutor units working on innocence investigations. Some of the materials include reports, toolkits, guidelines for collaboration with defense attorneys, resources for working with victims, and webinar recordings.15
The pace of exonerations shows no sign of slowing, but there’s reason for optimism given the new rules of professional conduct and development of CIUs to address pre- and post-conviction claims of innocence. While a dedicated CIU may not be an option for every prosecutor’s office, the best practices of established CIUs will certainly serve as guides for improving the process and solving problems throughout the state. I hope this article will serve as a starting point for those interested in seeking resources on CIUs.