New EDNY Committee To Give Convictions A Second Look

By Andrea Keckley | July 25, 2023, 3:03 PM EDT ·

A New York federal prosecutor announced Monday that his office is forming a committee to look over claims of wrongful convictions.

Breon Peace, the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of New York, is forming the conviction integrity committee. He appointed Assistant U.S. Attorney Kayla Bensing in October 2022 to formalize the conviction integrity process and collaborate with law enforcement partners as the U.S. attorney office's first conviction integrity coordinator. Members of the public can fill out a conviction integrity inquiry form online to bring a case to the office's attention.

"I think that the goal of this is really, to the extent we have a request or inquiry to look into a conviction — in effect, a claim of wrongful conviction — we're looking for credible evidence, new evidence, that calls into question the underlying conviction that will tend to be evidence that undermines the factual record upon which the conviction was based," Peace told Law360 Pulse on Tuesday.

The U.S. Attorney's Office for the Southern District of New York formed its own conviction integrity committee last October, saying it would be only the second formal federal conviction integrity body in the nation. The U.S. Attorney's Office for the District of Columbia launched a conviction integrity unit in 2014, which it says investigates fact-based wrongful conviction claims.

U.S. Attorney Martin Estrada of California's Central District followed suit in March, announcing the launch of a committee for post-conviction evaluations.

Peace noted that forming this committee is something he's wanted to do since he became U.S. attorney in 2021, and said that he was looking into the initiative before the other offices announced. He consulted particularly with the SDNY office throughout the process, something he called "quite useful."

"I think our process is quite similar to theirs," he said.

Many conviction review teams have been formed in local prosecutors' offices, including in New York. District attorneys in Manhattan, Queens, Brooklyn and the Bronx have all announced plans to move to vacate convictions they don't trust. The office of Richmond County District Attorney Michael McMahon in Staten Island has a conviction integrity review unit as well, but details about vacated convictions were not available.

The National Registry of Exonerations identified 51 operational conviction integrity units in the U.S. with recorded exonerations as of June 14, 2022, as well as 46 others with no recorded exonerations. The registry is maintained by the University of California, Irvine; the University of Michigan; and Michigan State University.

A 2022 report by the Quattrone Center for the Fair Administration of Justice found that more than 3,000 people have been exonerated since 1989. Of the pool of exonerations, the most recent data from the National Registry for Exonerations identified 695 exonerations where conviction integrity units played a role in the case. The Quattrone Center report proposed national guidelines for post-conviction reviews, which encouraged prosecutors and criminal defense attorneys to work collaboratively when reviewing wrongful conviction claims.

"I do believe that in this process, as currently designed, we will be working with defense lawyers on particular claims," Peace said. "I expect some will be raised by members of the defense bar. And I will say in the Eastern District of New York, we have a very — I think — good working relationship with our federal defenders here and members of our Criminal Justice Act panel, who may handle these kinds of cases."

--Additional reporting by Emily Sawicki and Sarah Martinson. Editing by Robert Rudinger.

Correction: A previous version of this article said the Quattrone Center for the Fair Administration of Justice found that more than 3,000 people have been exonerated with help from conviction integrity or post-conviction justice units since 1989. The error has been corrected.

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