Attorney General Josh Shapiro wants justice

Plans new statewide conviction integrity unit

  • Joseph Darius Jaafari/PA Post
It’s February 14, Context readers. And that can only mean one thing: It’s Arizona’s Birthday! The State of 5 Cs (Copper, Cattle, Cotton, Citrus and Climate) was established on this day in 1912. But, of course, it’s hard to forget that today is universally recognized as the eve of Singles Awareness Day, when we salute the single people out there, doing the best they can. Oh… it’s also Valentine’s Day. Meh. If you’re really itching to do something romantic, go out and find a swamp rose, a native flower to Pennsylvania’s marshlands. Or, just do nothing. I’m not bitter. —Joseph Darius Jaafari, staff writer
Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro speaks during a news conference in Philadelphia, Tuesday, May 14, 2019.

Matt Rourke / Associated Press

Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro speaks during a news conference in Philadelphia, Tuesday, May 14, 2019. (Matt Rourke / AP Photo)

On Wednesday, Attorney General Josh Shapiro announced he would create a Conviction Integrity Unit charged with analyzing and reviewing old cases that might have resulted in bad convictions. For inmates in Pennsylvania’s prisons who stand by their innocence, the unit will be a sort of last-resort for getting their cases reassessed.

This isn’t the first-of-its kind unit in Pennsylvania, but it will be the first to look at cases statewide. Currently, only Philadelphia has a unit like this, and it only reviews cases tried by the Philadelphia County Court of Common Pleas.

But before we discuss exactly what the AG’s unit will do, we’re going to go back into where these units came from, how effective they’ve been in other states, and what makes them integral to a fair criminal justice system.

You might think the recent trend of progressive prosecutors and criminal justice reform groups birthed the idea to create integrity units across the nation. You’d be wrong, because it was a conservative, tough-on-crime North Carolina judge who established the first Actual Innocence Commission in 2002. Unlike efforts with similar names, the N.C. commission (and the N.C. Innocence Inquiry Commission that grew out if it) had the power to subpoena records and witnesses in cases where evidence was not properly disclosed to the defense, often referred to as “Brady material.”

The commission’s only job is to review cases where there might have been wrongdoing, and retry those cases for exoneration.

The reasoning is simple: in a human system, there will be mistakes made and biases will occur. And as the old adage goes, where there’s a single known innocent person in jail, you’ll find many more.

“We have an imperfect system. And wrongful convictions, although rare, do exist. And this is why it’s important to have a system in place to fix and minimize wrongful convictions,” Andrew Warren, a district attorney in Florida, told the Tampa Bay Times in 2018 when he started taking on cases for review.

Close to a dozen other states and 45 municipalities across the nation launched their own projects to review wrongful convictions. Since the Actual Innocence Commission started 14 years ago, it’s secured the release of 12 people. In Cook County (Chicago), 94 exonerations were the result of that unit’s work. In Harris County (Houston), there’s been 141 exonerations.

But there is considerable pushback against progressive prosecutors, specifically from fiscal conservatives who view the units as costly and with little outcome. New Orleans’ unit was dismantled after less than two years because of budget reasons, and even the North Carolina commission was on the chopping block at one point.

In Pennsylvania, only Philadelphia’s Conviction Integrity Unit exists. Since District Attorney Larry Krasner took office in 2018, 13 people have been exonerated.

Politically, the units are good for building trust with communities that have lost trust in the criminal justice system, according to Fair and Just Protection, an advocacy group. With rumors that Shapiro is looking to run governor in 2022, it would make sense to seize onto an issue — criminal justice reform — that’s a major voting issue for Black communities across the state.

It’s unclear what form the AG’s unit will take, but typically these commissions consist of judges, prosecutors, victims rights advocates and public defenders. As we learn more, we’ll be sure to update you. – Joseph Darius Jaafari

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AP Photo/Matt Slocum

Former Philadelphia mayor Michael Nutter speaks during a Airbnb Panel Discussion on Sharing Economy in Philadelphia, Tuesday, July 26, 2016, during the second day of the Democratic National Convention. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

  • No stand down from stop-and-frisk: In the Inquirer, former Philly mayor Michael Nutter defended his support for stop-and-frisk, the policing tactic of stopping people at random and searching for weapons. The practice was deemed unconstitutional, as it targeted primarily Black men, and the majority of arrests made were for possession of small amounts of marijuana — not exactly a public safety threat. But Nutter, who is the chair for Michael Bloomberg’s presidential campaign, stood by it. “I certainly would apologize to any person who was treated inappropriately, or felt that they were treated inappropriately, but again, the focus of the effort is trying to do everything we could, legally, to reduce violence,” he said.

  • Preying on desperate immigrants: Bogus immigration lawyers stole thousands of dollars from people hoping to become Americans, sometimes even submitting forms that would trigger deportation. It’s the latest report from Inquirer reporters Barbara Laker and Wendy Ruderman, with photos by Jose F. Moreno. From the top of thier story, showing how dire this problem is: “At a time when undocumented workers are increasingly terrified they will be deported, their desperation to stay here legally has fueled an already burgeoning industry of fraudulent immigration services providers. Complaints against them in Pennsylvania skyrocketed last year, jumping to 129 from 22 in 2018, according to the Federal Trade Commission.”

  • More evidence of police payment: In a second attempt, the defense attorney for Cheron Shelton, accused of a mass gun killing in 2016, requested (and was subsequently denied) a mistrial, as more information came out on how police paid over $2,700 for a witness to allegedly name Shelton in the killing. The information was originally hidden from Shelton’s lawyer, who says it is an example of “Brady material,” which is evidence that prosecutors must give over during an investigation to defense attorneys. The DA says they didn’t need to turn over the information.

  • More to the story: On Wednesday, nurses and family members testified at the pre-trial hearing for Lisa Snyder, who is charged with the premeditated murder of her two children. Her kids, aged 4 and 8, were found hung from the rafters in their Berks County home. Snyder originally said that the children were being bullied at school, prompting them to take their lives. The story of the children went viral, and was added into a wider conversation around trying to keep children safe in schools from bullying. But testimony Wednesday from Snyder’s relatives seemed to contradict those claims.

  • Show us the moneySpotlight PA’s Charlotte Keith has a story showing that lots of state government tax credit programs do little to benefit Pennsylvania’s taxpayers. “In the most recent fiscal year, the state gave away more than $500 million in tax credits through dozens of programs. But an independent office tasked with reviewing them is questioning whether some are


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