Innocent people get convicted for crimes they did not commit, but how often it happens is impossible to determine.
The Philadelphia District Attorney’s office recently added to its Conviction Review Unit (CRU) in an effort to right the wrongful convictions of innocent people. This year it overturned the conviction of two people, including Shaurn Thomas who was imprisoned for 24 years.
CRU Assistant Director Andrew Wellbrock explained the importance of his unit.
“Justice means getting to the right result,” he said.
The claim of actual innocence is central to CRU. It does not look into technicalities or legal issues.
Being a department within the District Attorney’s Office could lead some critics to question whether the unit can be objective.
“Where we have to admit we’re wrong to get to the right result, we’re not afraid of doing that,” Wellbrock explained. “This is all about having legitimacy in the city. So that people know that they can trust our office. That our office will do the right thing and when we’ve found out we haven’t done the right thing, we’ll work to address it.”
Philadelphia is not the only city doing this.
“It’s been a national movement of prosecutor’s offices to embed this function within the prosecutor’s office,” Wellbrock said. “We have a very unique role as attorneys in that … we represent the community, not one specific party. I think it’s just part of a more modern realization of what that means.”
Given the local state of affairs of prosecutors offices in the city and state, Wellbrock said more trust in the DA’s office will help the community.
“I think the net effect on the community is a positive one,” Wellbrock said. “Because it shows that we are open and that we will take an open and independent look at these cases rather than just defend a conviction.”
For those convicted in the Philadelphia County Court of Common Pleas but innocent, there is a process.
The first step is to visit the CRU page on the city’s website and locate the submission and consent forms. The forms must be filled out by the convicted individual, not a surrogate. If someone is currently imprisoned, the forms could be provided by a family member or attorney, but the individual must fill it out and the attorney file it.
“We only accept petitions directly from the person who is affected,” Wellbrock explained. “We don’t accept petitions from family members.”
The unit only accepts submissions from the convicted person because it needs very specific details about the situation. Wellbrock had advice for those wishing to get help from the CRU based on his experience.
“One of the obvious ones is not misstating facts to us,” he said. “You might have a very legitimate issue but you’re losing credibility if you begin your letter with something we know is not true.”
Another situation to avoid is one of irrelevant information.
“If the evidence you are alleging will have no effect on your conviction, that would be frivolous,” he said. “For example on a drug case someone wrote to us to say their block captain is willing to testify they never saw him with drugs. Well that doesn’t mean you didn’t have drugs. So even if we 100 percent believe this witness your claim is frivolous because it does not bear on your [case].”
Successful cases typically involve information that did not come to light during the trial. In the Thomas case, investigators found new information in a police file. Other information strengthened his alibi.
In terms of timeframe, Wellbrock said some petitioners can hear back in two to three weeks but other claims need a deeper look.
“[But] no one is waiting six months or a year,” he said.
Utilizing the CRU is completely separate situation from the normal appellate court system. Someone convicted of a crime in Philadelphia County Court of Common Pleas (First Judicial District) can appeal to Superior Court. If the appeal is denied there are further appeal methods available to the Supreme Court and via Pennsylvania’s Post Conviction Relief Act (PCRA).
A person can request CRU review their case before, during or after any stage of their normal appeal process. When CRU identifies an issue with a conviction, it moves quickly.
“The idea is one more night in jail is too much for someone who shouldn’t be there,” Wellbrock explained.
-Text and image by Bob Stewart.