The Montana State Council on Judicial Accountability is calling for immediate action by our legislators to support, create and sustain a Montana Conviction Integrity Unit (CIU) so no more innocent men or women are unjustly convicted and punished for crimes they did not commit. There is ample evidence of the need for a CIU. Conviction Integrity Units have been established in 49 offices around the country to review possible false convictions. Innocence organizations (IO's) such as The Montana Innocence Project helped to pioneer the way to wrongful conviction exoneration's. IO's are not state funded, and the state should take on the role and responsibility of creating CIU's to aid in the exoneration of our innocent citizens. The sheer monetary savings would undoubtedly fund a CIU in Montana.
Since 1989 there have been over 2,500 exoneration's of innocent people and Montana is not immune to this tragedy. Various studies conclusively show that 5 to 6% of convictions are false and the socio/economic costs of convicting and incarcerating innocent people are staggering. These figures are consistent with organizations such as The National Registry of Exoneration's, The Journal of Quantitative Criminology, Innocence Projects, and The Quattrone Center for the Fair Administration of Justice.
There is a growing consensus about the importance of CIU's scrutinizing past cases where concerns arise in the integrity of the conviction or the existence of misconduct that corrupted the process. False convictions of the innocent makes a mockery of our justice system, robbing men and women of dignity, family time, and liberty. It harms the integrity of our entire justice system as well as our communities. Conviction Integrity Units are well-settled vehicles for reviewing and, when necessary and appropriate, seeking to overturn convictions where there is actual evidence of judicial, prosecutorial or law enforcement misconduct, or other considerations that undermine the integrity of a conviction. Quests for judicial accountability are as fervent as ever in Montana,
Of the 2,500+ exoneration's since 1989, 987 of those false conviction were because of official misconduct by prosecutors, perjury or a false report by police and other witnesses. A record number of number of exoneration's in 2018 involved misconduct by police and prosecutors.
CIU's and IO's are critical to exoneration's, but do not cure the corruption that is problematic with false convictions. That must be done through enforcement of current laws and ethics to our judicial officers, and to work with our legislators to bring meaningful oversight reform, and create police/prosecutor conduct commissions to the forefront.
The principles below are based on the following predicates:
1) Community trust in the justice system is vital to the operation of that system and integral to promoting public safety;
2) Community trust is eroded when individuals are wrongfully convicted or when systemic injustices occur; and
3) Community trust is strengthened when an office has an effective mechanism for integrity review.
Key principles and best practices.
CIU offices should be established to conduct review of past and current convictions when concerns arise regarding the integrity of the conviction. The following principles should be considered as key ingredients of that process:
1) The CIU should be an independent that operates based on written policies formulated after consultation with stakeholders through a transparent process. It should be led by a respected senior lawyer who reports directly to the county attorney and be staffed with prosecutors and investigators committed to its mission.
2) The CIU should not be a part of the appellate unit or report to an appellate supervisor. Their functions are distinct and it is best to maintain separation of these two parts of the office.
3) To promote public accountability and credibility, the CIU should seek the input of outside experts and/or an external review board.
4) The CIU should be given a broad mandate to review a wide range of integrity issues, including claims of actual innocence, violations of due process, and corrupt law enforcement practices.
5) The CIU should not preclude review of convictions simply because they are based on a guilty plea, have an appeal pending, or the defendant has served his or her sentence.
6) The CIU should have authority to investigate and prioritize felony cases but should also have discretion to review misdemeanor convictions-especially where systemic issues may be present.
7) The CIU should specifically review convictions that relied on discredited forensic methods.
8) As part of a commitment to effective and robust conviction review, offices should approve, and not oppose, requests for DNA testing.
9) The CIU should allow individuals seeking review and /or their attorneys to have access to all non-privileged and non-sensitive information in the case files for review using limited disclosure agreements.
10) The CIU should be empowered to seek or support all available and appropriate remedies, including seeking dismissal or expungement of the case, supporting a petition for the restoration of rights, directly advocating before parole boards for early release, moving for a reduction in sentence, or supporting a request for clemency or pardon when appropriate.
11) The CIU should support the enactment of systems of compensation for those wrongfully convicted and advocate for the elimination of restrictions that preclude compensation based simply on a prior unrelated conviction. The CIU should also assist in securing necessary support and documentation, such as declarations of innocence , that facilitate successful reentry into the community.
12) Errors identified by the CIU should be used to inform proactive accountability measures and training within offices, and there should be a well defined method for the CIU to recommend needed policy and procedural change.
13) In order to increase public understanding of and trust in the CIU, offices should publish annual reports detailing the results of conviction, case review and actions taken.
Although these principles focus on the establishment and operation of of a CIU, they should also inform office culture as a whole. With these principles in mind, offices should transform "performance metrics' that enforce and encourage a "win at all costs" mentality (such as basing performance or promotions on conviction rates) to a system that recognizes and rewards prosecutors for doing justice and avoiding wrongful convictions at the forefront
"There is a growing consensus about the importance of CIU's scrutinizing past cases where concerns arise in the integrity of the conviction or the existence of misconduct that corrupted the process."
"C.I.U.s have become a brand name that has good public relations value for public officials".