Why Has Jackie Lacey’s Conviction Review Unit Exonerated So Few People?
Critics say there may be systemic problems with how the unit is run within the Los Angeles County DA’s office.
On June 1, 2007, Ruben Martinez Jr., who made a modest living as a day laborer, was arrested on the street by Los Angeles police officers. He told The Guardian that he was questioned about his acquaintances, examined for tattoos, and then told he was being charged with armed robbery. Martinez always said that he didn’t know anything about these crimes the police seemed to think he’d done. But, nevertheless, the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office charged him with nine felonies for five armed robberies that occurred between December 2005 and May 2007.
Prosecutors offered Martinez a plea deal that would put him in prison for two years. But, because he was innocent and thought justice would prevail, Martinez rejected the deal and went to trial. The case for his innocence seemed strong: There was shaky eyewitness identification, documentation showing that Martinez was at a worksite during at least two of the robberies, and no physical evidence tying him to any crime scene. The first trial ended in a mistrial because the jury could not agree. Despite this sign that the evidence for guilt was tenuous, prosecutors forged ahead, and in 2008, a jury found Martinez guilty and sentenced him to 47 years in prison.
Jackie Lacey, the Los Angeles district attorney, created a conviction review unit (CRU) in 2015 to reconsider convictions that might have been erroneous, a practice that prosecutors nationwide now recognize as a core part of ensuring justice. When she announced its creation, Lacey, who is facing a competitive election on Tuesday, cited a “legal obligation and ethical mandate to ensure that the right person is convicted for the crime charged.” According to her office, the CRU has received almost 2,000 requests for review since its start and has reviewed 350 of those cases—but only three people have been exonerated and one received a reduced sentence.
Martinez was one of the lucky few. He most likely would have remained behind bars but for the persistence of his wife, Maria Martinez, who continued to gather evidence of her husband’s innocence and enlisted the help of a retired homicide detective and friend to make the case to the CRU. Finally, in 2019, Lacey announced that her office had exonerated Martinez and released him from prison. She celebrated her decision in a press release and rare public appearance, claiming that it showed the value of the CRU particularly because Martinez was not represented by a lawyer or an innocence project. (Of the three people Lacey has exonerated, only one was represented by one of the two Southern California innocence projects.)
Lacey wasn’t yet the top prosecutor when Martinez was convicted. But when she formed the CRU, she vowed to rectify some of the injustices of the past. And her office was right to be concerned. Since 1989, California has exonerated almost 200 people, according to the National Registry of Exonerations; 68 are from Los Angeles County.
Against that backdrop, it’s perhaps surprising that the CRU has exonerated a very small proportion of the cases it has seen—including one case from the Loyola Law School’s Project for the Innocent and none of the cases presented by the California Innocence Project. The two innocence projects say they have presented over a dozen cases where the defendant has a good case for exoneration. Lacey’s office told The Appeal over email: “Review is done the same with all cases that have been presented to CRU. CRU reviews all trial, preliminary hearing and appellate transcripts, case and investigatory files and contacts witnesses in the case.“
But defendants who advocates believe are probably innocent are dismissed by the CRU with short and cursory emails, without context or the results of any investigations. Mike Semanchik, managing attorney at the California Innocence Project, thinks that the unit is inundated. “We have been fortunate to have eight lawyers, a dozen law students, and hundreds of volunteers to help us sift through the thousands of requests for assistance we receive every year,” he said. “No doubt the CRU is seeing the same number of applications but operating with a fraction of the staff and one that appears to continue to change.” According to Lacey’s office, the three deputy prosecutors who currently work in the CRU were prosecutors within the DA’s office before rotating into the unit.
Among the dismissed applicants was Jason Robert Walton, who was convicted in 2006 of first-degree murder and attempted murder and is a client of the California Innocence Project. Walton’s trial for shooting two teenage boys at a South Central Los Angeles carnival was based largely on eyewitness testimony, including the word of a victim and of a carnival operator on the scene, according to police records. (The other victim died.) Prosecutors argued that Walton had shot the two teenagers as part of a gang rivalry.
Attorneys from the California Innocence Project found that the eyewitness testimony was inconsistent and did not match Walton’s appearance or the clothes he was wearing. An investigator further realized that one of the eyewitnesses had probably not seen Walton at all because of an obstruction but had most likely been pressured by police to identify a suspect.
Despite a presentation and thorough memorandum dated Nov. 4, 2016, that laid out the weaknesses in the case to Lacey’s CRU, Deputy District Attorney Brock Lunsford sent a letter many months later saying there was “no new or credible evidence,” so the CRU would take no further action. (Lunsford is now the deputy-in-chief of the murder resentencing unit, which evaluates felony murder cases eligible for resentencing under California’s new law SB 1437.)
Critics say the scanty track record of Lacey’s CRU suggests systemic problems with how the unit is run. For one thing, it’s covering the largest county in the country with a relatively small staff. In November, Lacey announced in a press release that the CRU had received over 1,900 requests for review, reviewed 350, and have 45 in “in various stages of the review process.” According to Lacey’s office, the three deputy district attorneys, along with a few paralegals and investigators, handle that load. By comparison, the unit in the Brooklyn DA’s office has nine attorneys, plus two investigators and two paralegals who have reviewed 80 cases out of 175 accepted for investigation. Philadelphia’s conviction integrity unit (CIU) has received around 800 to 1,000 applications over the last two years and is staffed with seven full-time attorneys plus three attorneys who also review sentencing decisions.
Best practices suggest that prosecutor-led conviction review units should hire staff dedicated to freeing innocent prisoners, not confirming the work of career prosecutors. A 2016 Quattrone Center for the Fair Administration of Justice report on CRUs highlights the key components of a quality unit: “Good faith CRUs that operate with independence, flexibility, and transparency.” The report also specifically suggests that CRUs should be led by attorneys who have both “firsthand prosecutorial and criminal defense experience.”
Semanchik of the California Innocence Project says some of the attorneys in Lacey’s CRU come from gang units, which are responsible for a large percent of convictions within the office. For example, Bobby Grace ran for district attorney against Jackie Lacey in 2012; he was in the Hardcore Gangs Unit in the 1990s and recently left the CRU to return to prosecution.
CRUs, or conviction integrity units, require prosecutors to look at cases with fresh eyes and without bias. This can be difficult because in many prosecutors’ offices, individual attorneys are promoted based on their track record of success; freeing people from prison goes against the grain.
Ideally, they should have outside counsel—as Larry Krasner does in Pennsylvania and Craig Watkins did in Dallas—who report to the DA independently. “The whole point of a CIU is that it be staffed by people who are capable of assessing cases independently and objectively,” University of San Francisco law professor Lara Bazelon told The Appeal in an email.
Expecting a gang prosecutor to “review what is essentially her life’s work and find that it is deeply flawed and fundamentally unfair seems like an exercise in futility,” Bazelon said. “Explicit and implicit bias, tunnel vision, and simply wanting to feel good about her life’s work will all militate against fairness and objectivity.”