Criminal Justice Coalition releases landmark guide on wrongful convictions

Thursday, March 25, 2021
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A coalition of criminal justice leaders and stakeholders convened by the Massachusetts Bar Association (MBA) has released a comprehensive guide, urging all 11 state district attorney offices and the Attorney General’s Office to maintain effective conviction integrity programs to prevent and remedy wrongful convictions and other miscarriages of justice in Massachusetts.

The Massachusetts Conviction Integrity Working Group (MCIWG), established by the MBA in September 2018, includes Middlesex District Attorney Marian T. Ryan and Plymouth District Attorney Timothy J. Cruz, leaders from the Attorney General’s Office and the MBA, representatives from the Northwestern District Attorney’s Office, senior trial counsel and an innocence program attorney from the Committee for Public Counsel Services, a former judge, a leading civil rights attorney, the director of the Boston College Innocence Program, the executive director of the New England Innocence Project, and the former executive director of Prisoners’ Legal Services.

The MCIWG’s guide, Conviction Integrity Programs: A Guide to Best Practices for Prosecutorial Offices, represents the consensus recommendations of all MCIWG members — from vastly differing legal perspectives, roles and backgrounds — after two-and-a-half years of extensive research and study, and consultation with prosecutors from leading conviction integrity units in the United States and renowned scholars in the fields of conviction integrity and cognitive bias. MCIWG members believe that the guide sets forth best practices that are the most effective means to address and prevent wrongful convictions, miscarriages of justice and the adverse impact of implicit biases in the criminal legal system.

"It is a prosecutor’s highest obligation to ensure that justice is done and to do so in a way that gives the public trust and confidence in our work," says Middlesex District Attorney Marian Ryan, who served as one of the MCIWG co-chairs. "Today’s announcement is the result of a truly groundbreaking collaboration that brought together key stakeholders in this field to create a guide that will serve as an important resource. We hope that it will help all offices to develop their own model of an effective conviction integrity program."

Civil rights attorney Richard W. Cole, who served as the MBA’s MCIWG co-chair, emphasizes, "While the guide’s Massachusetts focus reflects the MCIWG members’ knowledge of and experience in the Massachusetts criminal legal system, its core principles and best practice recommendations, supported by extensive scholarship, should serve as an invaluable resource for prosecutorial offices throughout the Unites States committed to criminal justice and conviction integrity." Likewise, Plymouth District Attorney Timothy J. Cruz, who served as an MCIWG member, states, "I am certain that development of this best practice guide will . . . become a model for prosecutorial offices in Massachusetts and across the nation."

First and foremost, the guide calls for prosecutorial offices to create an independent Conviction Integrity Unit ("CIU") to identify, review, investigate and make recommendations regarding claims of wrongful conviction and other miscarriages of justice. Whether an office is creating a new program or building on its current efforts, the guide details the most effective structure of a CIU to maximize independence, efficacy and transparency, and to reduce the risk of cognitive bias in post-conviction case review. 

The MCIWG guide emphasizes the importance of fostering a supportive culture from the top and calls on prosecutorial leadership to prioritize the prevention and remediation of wrongful convictions and other miscarriages of justice.

"Over the last two years, my office has had the privilege of co-leading this group, which has worked diligently to provide a roadmap for prosecutors across the state to ensure their conviction integrity programs are effective and robust," says Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey. "This is just a start — we are committed to continually enhancing our integrity practices, and we look forward to ongoing collaboration with the district attorneys and innocence community to ensure justice and public confidence in our court system."

The guide recommends that conviction integrity programs feature several core elements, such as structural independence from other divisions; clear protocols that establish case screening, review and investigative processes; public access to information about how to access the program; and periodic internal reviews and staff training. It also recommends collecting and maintaining data to promote conviction integrity goals and enhance accountability, such as through the creation of a "Law Enforcement Misconduct Database." Northwestern District Attorney David E. Sullivan, whose office participated in the MCIWG, declares, "I can say firsthand that the guide is an essential and highly practical tool for prosecutors."

Successful implementation of best practices should not only reinforce community trust and confidence in the integrity of the state’s criminal legal system, but also, most importantly, benefit the individuals who have been victimized by wrongful convictions and other miscarriages of justice. As Anthony Benedetti, chief counsel of MCIWG co-chair organization the Committee for Public Counsel Services (CPCS), states, "Well-managed conviction integrity units can and should root out flawed convictions and help in restoring freedom to those who have lost so much." 

In that regard, the MBA, in coordination with and under the auspices of the MCIWG, has committed to convene a statewide “Conviction Integrity Task Force” to serve as a resource for prosecutorial offices by offering initial training programs, and technical and other forms of assistance for adopting the best practices recommendations outlined in the guide. 

"The recommendations in this guide — from ethical leadership at the top, to independent CIUs, to data collection and training — will help prosecution offices of all sizes work towards achieving justice," says MCIWG member and Professor Sharon L. Beckman, director of the Boston College Innocence Program at Boston College Law School. Fellow MCIWG member Radha Natarajan, the executive director of the New England Innocence Project, says, "As indicated in the guide, we look forward to next steps where individuals and communities most impacted by these issues can collaborate with and join efforts to develop robust, effective conviction integrity units throughout the Commonwealth."

Click here to view the guide.

To view the MBA's press release on the new guide, and full quotes /additional reactions from MCIWG co-chairs and other partner organizations, click here.