‘The criminal justice system does not always get it right,’ chief justice says

ajc.com

A team of legal experts is studying ways Ohio’s criminal justice system could be reformed so that wrongful convictions are caught and corrected earlier.

The fight to overturn a wrongful conviction can take decades and enormous resources under the current system. The Ohio Innocence Project, based at the University of Cincinnati College of Law, has worked to free 32 innocent people since 2003 — collectively they served roughly 600 years behind bars.

Ohio Supreme Court Justice Maureen O’Connor, a former county prosecutor, established a task force of experts to examine how Ohio could do a better job of reviewing and catching wrongful convictions. The group is scheduled to deliver a report by late summer.

“The criminal justice system does not always get it right. I think that’s the starting point here. And if we haven’t gotten it right, we shouldn’t say, ‘Oh, well, the system worked,’ because the system didn’t work. If there is a way to reexamine that and revisit it, that’s what these integrity task forces are all about,” O’Connor said.

She added: “I don’t think anybody should be against this.”

The Ohio Prosecuting Attorneys Association, which wields substantial political power at the Ohio Statehouse, decided not to participate in the task force.

“We’re concerned with the idea of a judicial task force making recommendations to prosecutors, elected officers of a separate branch, about what they should be doing in their office,” OPAA Executive Director Louis Tobin said.

He added: “There are already in Ohio multiple levels of appellate review, and post-conviction review, and opportunities to have DNA tested or to present other new evidence. So what these advocates really want are more avenues to continually relitigate a bunch of cases where they just don’t like the outcome.”

In August, the prosecutors’ association published its best practices for conviction reviews, which includes establishing conviction integrity units within prosecutor offices. Three counties — Cuyahoga in 2014, Summit in 2019 and Franklin this year — set up such units. But Ohio’s 85 other counties have not, according to Tobin.

Montgomery County Prosecutor Mathias Heck Jr., said in a written statement: “Our office does not have a formal ‘integrity unit.’ When responding to the various post-conviction legal challenges that are already provided for by Ohio law, my office strives to be objective in claims of post-conviction and wrongful convictions, following the existing guidelines.”

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Ohio Supreme Court Justice Michael Donnelly, who is serving on the conviction integrity task force, said he views taking away an innocent person’s freedom is “one of the worst forms of injustice in our democracy.”

Donnelly said post-conviction review and the appeals process, as well as efforts by public defenders and the Ohio Innocence Project, are not enough.

“The system, as it is presently designed, is not effectively and efficiently dealing with these claims of innocence. The stars really have to align for someone who is wrongfully convicted to get the system to take a second look at their case and send them on the road toward exoneration,” he said.

Wrongful convictions can happen based on issues such as bad forensics, police or prosecutor misconduct, mistaken eyewitness identifications and false confessions.

Wrongful conviction claims are rare among tens of thousands of cases, Tobin said, and valid claims are even more rare. Given that, smaller counties might not want to establish conviction integrity units, he said.

“A unit might not be practical for smaller counties where these claims are nonexistent or exceedingly rare. In these counties, our practices can still be used as guidance about what to consider or alternatively they recommend entering into agreements with counties that do have units,” Tobin said.

Donnelly said Ohio could follow the lead of New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Michigan, which established statewide conviction integrity units under their state attorney general offices.

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He added that the state has paid out millions of dollars to settle wrongful conviction claims, and it’d be smart to spend the money on the front end to prevent such claims.

The state of Ohio agreed last year to pay $1.2 million to M. Jenny Wilcox and Robert Aldridge, former Huber Heights residents who were wrongfully convicted in 1985 of 23 child molestation charges and told it’d be 60 years before they’d be eligible for parole. They spent more than a decade in prison before the case became unraveled by the work of private investigator Martin Yant of Columbus.

Donnelly, who served as a trial court judge for 14 years, said it is difficult to know how many innocent people may be wrongfully convicted.

“It’s scary that there could be this very large percentage of people. Their claims need to be processed. We have to value truth over finality. We have to have a system that recognizes that these forms of injustice occur and how to remedy them systemically as soon as possible — it should be everybody’s goal, including prosecutors,” Donnelly said.

Tobin of the prosecutors’ association said: “It’s unfair to characterize prosecutors as resistant to calls for review or to act like they blindly stand behind convictions. Prosecutors are already held to a higher ethical standard than other attorneys. They are resistant to calls for review that lack merit, and the vast majority of these do lack merit.”

By the Numbers:

2,755: Americans have been exonerated — wrongly convicted and later cleared of all charges — since 1989, according to the National Registry of Exonerations

85: Ohioans have been exonerated

3: People have been exonerated, two cases are pending and six more people had their sentences reduced after Cuyahoga County prosecutor’s conviction integrity unit reviewed their cases

1: Application for review has been received by Summit County prosecutor’s conviction integrity unit