In what the administration calls an effort to strengthen public confidence in the criminal justice system, Gov. Ned Lamont has set aside funding, in his budget announced on Wednesday, to establish a specialized unit to investigate and overturn potential wrongful convictions.
The Governor’s budget directs $363,382 to fund a paralegal, a prosecutor and a police inspector who would make up a “Conviction Integrity Unit” to be run out of the State’s Attorney’s Office.
The program would join 79 other units like this across the country, six of them on a state level, that have together exonerated 151 people.
Chief State’s Attorney Richard Colangelo said that after he was appointed last January, he brought together a working group to make recommendations for the unit.
Colangelo said his vision included a team of not three individuals, but six — two prosecutors, three inspectors and a paralegal. To meet that goal, he said that he planned to supplement the three positions provided for in the Governor’s budget with three other individuals employed in his office.
The budget also provides $50,000 for the unit to hire independent consultants to review forensic evidence and other scientific methodologies.
Colangelo said that the cases to be reviewed could be recommended to the unit by a variety of sources — a person convicted of crime, a defense attorney, or a civil litigation bureau.
After the unit investigates, said Colangelo, they would bring their findings in front of an independent panel that would include, among others, two prosecutors not involved with the underlying conviction, and a retired judge. This panel would recommend to the State’s Attorney whether the conviction should be removed from someone’s record.
Colangelo said that while he hasn’t yet established criteria, he wants to prioritize cases of individuals who are still incarcerated. The nature of the crime, however, could run the gamut.
“I don’t think there’s going to be a case too small or too large to look at,” said Colangelo.
The State of Connecticut has already exonerated 30 individuals since 1989. These individuals spent an average of 11.25 years in jail, according to the National Registry of Exonerations.
Fiona Doherty, a professor at Yale Law School and member of the working group, said the unit also represents a racial justice initiative.
“Black men are disproportionately represented in the exonerations,” she said.
She warned, however, that the state needed to be careful to do it right.
Doherty said the group used Conviction Integrity Units in Brooklyn and Philadelphia as models for Connecticut. What they found, she said, was that independence and transparency were critical. She said there were “a shocking number” of units that had not produced any exonerations.
“It can be worse to have a CIU that does not function properly than [to] not have a CIU at all,” she said.
Michael Lawlor, a former chair of the Connecticut Judiciary Committee and Criminal Justice Advisor to Gov. Dan Malloy, said he thinks a state level Conviction Integrity Unit is a great idea.
“It’ll be more focused, more expertise, not relying on local prosecutors to revisit their own prosecutions, more or less autonomous,” said Lawlor, whose brother, Kevin Lawlor, is the Deputy Chief State’s Attorney and a member of the working group.
Brett Dignam, a former professor at Yale Law School who served with Lawlor on Connecticut’s now-defunct Advisory Committee on Wrongful Convictions, said it was difficult for prosecutors and police investigators involved with an original investigation to admit that there had been a mistake.
“Even in the face of DNA evidence, it’s really hard for people to accept that they were part of that,” she said.
Doherty said that Colangelo’s decision to keep the unit within the State’s Attorney’s Office makes it even more important that the unit not become compromised — especially given the office itself could have played a part in the wrongful conviction.
“If you look at exonerations over the last 10 years, most of those cases involve evidence of official misconduct by police or the state’s attorneys office,” said Doherty.
At the same time, Dignam said the unit could work with the prosecutors to quickly obtain records — a huge advantage over lawyers working within the regular court system.
Dignam said that getting convictions overturned through the court process is a struggle that has only gotten worse, and that the unit had the potential to work much more quickly to get wrongful convictions overturned.
Doherty said that it was also critical to be transparent with the lawyers or individuals who came forward with claims of wrongful conviction. She said the unit members needed to be non-adversarial and willing to collaborate — this was the only way to gain confidence of the people who would approach them for help.
“One of the most important objectives of that new unit will be to create trust in its own procedures,” said Doherty.
Dignam suggested that the unit be required to report on the number of cases they had looked at, how many wrongful convictions were found, the source of the error and a potential solution going forward.
Colangelo said transparency might be difficult while the investigation was in progress, but that it was a goal of his office to make reports and records available afterward.
Lawlor said that he believes the unit should have an additional goal: identifying problems with how investigations are conducted and using those to change the broader system.
He said he thinks there is more of an appetite today for these changes, mainly because there have been so many high-profile cases highlighted in the media.
Dignam said the focus should be on improving training for police officers and prosecutors.
Lawlor said there weren’t generally a large number of instances of wrongful convictions identified in Connecticut on a yearly basis.
“If it’s one or two its a lot,” he said. He credited this to Connecticut’s relatively well-staffed and well-trained Public Defender’s Office and the state’s crime lab.
His hope, he said, was that the state turn its attention to the large number of individuals who, he suspected, plead guilty to small crimes in order to avoid long periods in jail waiting for a court date.
Going through the legislature
The Governor’s budget still has to be approved by the legislature, and Colangelo said his “fingers are crossed” that the unit is approved.
State Sen. Saud Anwar, D-East Hartford, a member of the legislature’s Joint Committee on Judiciary, said he would support a team focused on overturning wrongful convictions.
“We know historically there have been injustices in the [conviction] process,” he said. “With new tech and newer opportunities … we are in a better place now to do that.”
State Rep. Craig Fishbein, R-Wallingford, a ranking member on the committee, said his biggest concern was the need to create parameters around what cases the unit would look at, and the cost of these reviews for taxpayers.