New Philadelphia DA Larry Krasner Hits Reset on the Office’s Troubled Conviction Review Unit
Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner is bringing much-needed change to the city’s notoriously ineffective conviction review unit (CRU). The district attorney’s office confirmed to The Appeal that Patricia Cummings, former head of the Dallas County district attorney’s conviction integrity unit, has joined the Philadelphia DA to lead the the office’s review of old cases for evidence of wrongful convictions.
Cummings — a former defense lawyer, prosecutor and lecturer at the University of Texas at Austin School of Law — took over the position on February 1 and is nationally recognized for her work on behalf of the falsely imprisoned.
“Patricia is one of the top experts in the country on innocence and exoneration,” said Krasner’s spokesperson, Ben Waxman. “She has a tremendous record of standing for justice throughout her career. Larry is thrilled that she has joined the office and he expects her to make a huge impact in her new role. “
Cummings takes the helm of an office that has been dogged by criticism for being a conviction review unit in name only. For three years following its establishment in April 2014, the CRU was part of the DA’s Post Conviction Relief Act (PCRA) unit, which represents the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania in the appeals process. This caused criminal justice advocates to question its independence and its commitment to pursuing just outcomes.
During that period, it had just one part-time staff member — veteran homicide prosecutor Mark Gilson. His office considered dozens of petitions but did not oversee a single exoneration until 2016. In one case, Gilson even pursued the retrial of an inmate, Anthony Wright, whose murder conviction had been thrown out based on exculpatory DNA evidence.
Gilson was one of 31 old-guard prosecutors fired by Krasner just days after he took office.
Last year, former DA Seth Williams (who was given a five-year sentence on federal bribery charges in late 2017) announced changes to the CRU, including separating it from the PCRA unit and adding three additional full-time staffers. However, under Williams’ direction, the unit limited itself to cases based only on inmate innocence, refusing to hear those in which procedural misconduct played a role in convictions.
Dallas County is credited with launching the nation’s first conviction integrity unit, in 2007, and to date has overseen 28 exonerations, according to the National Registry of Exonerations. Philadelphia’s CRU has handled just four in the past four years.
According to a published biography, Cummings worked in Williamson County, Texas, as a prosecutor of juvenile offenders before transitioning into criminal defense.
Prior to taking over Dallas’ conviction integrity unit in 2015, Cummings was perhaps best known for her successful effort to free Michael Morton, who was released from prison in 2011 after nearly 25 years, when DNA evidence cleared him in the murder of his wife. She was instrumental in getting a law passed in Texas, known as the Michael Morton Act, that requires prosecutors to open their files to defendants and keep records of the evidence they disclose.
Cummings has remarked publicly on the need to revisit convictions based on flawed forensic techniques. In 2015, she helped free Steven Mark Chaney, who was convicted of murder in 1987 based on now discredited bite-mark analysis.
She has also spoken of the responsibility of prosecutors to review cases in which innocence is not the primary consideration.
“There may be sometimes you’ve convicted somebody and it was wrong,” she told the Dallas Morning News in 2015. “You may not be able to prove that they’re innocent, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they don’t deserve the relief. It doesn’t necessarily mean that we don’t try to correct the wrong.”