Connecticut’s Conviction Integrity Unit Needs to Establish Credibility


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New Haven civil rights attorney Alex Taubes was more than hopeful on May 20, 2022 when State’s Attorney Joseph Valdes, the attorney running the state’s Conviction Integrity Unit (CIU) showed him the draft memo on the CIU’s assessment of his client Daryl Valentine’s claims of innocence. 

On that day, Taubes sat with another attorney who represented Valentine, criminal defense attorney Vishal Garg, while Valdes showed them a memo with exculpatory information. At that point, it seemed that vacating Valentine’s murder conviction was almost a formality. 

But February 3, 2023 dashed Taubes’ hopes. 

The CIU released a memo dated more than four months earlier, on Sept. 16, 2022three days after the oral argument in Valentine’s habeas appeal — and a memo from the CIU Panel explaining that the unit would not take any action on Valentine’s case because “no new relevant evidence was presented to the Panel that the jury and Courts had not already considered and the Panel had not lost confidence in the conviction.”

It was the first substantive decision on one of the 131 claims filed with the office as of December 31, 2022 and it makes one wonder if CIU stands for “Conviction Integrity Unit” or “Cover It Up.” 

The procedural history of Daryl Valentine’s case is as frustrating as its fact pattern. 

Valentine was arrested in 1991 for a murder that he has, rather convincingly, maintained he didn’t commit. A jury convicted him but that first conviction was reversed on appeal. At his second trial, another jury found him guilty based solely on the testimony of three eyewitness: one who had serious charges dismissed after he identified Valentine as the shooter and admitted he lied about Valentine’s identity, and two who already recanted their statements during trial, testifying that they were coerced and bribed by two New Haven police officers, Joe Greene and Anthony DiLillo, into identifying Valentine as the killer.

In each of Valentine’s trials, judges excluded testimony that these two police officers had a track record of coercing witnesses into giving false statements. 

Not only did no forensic or physical evidence point to Valentine as the culprit, the laws of physics made Higgins’ and Coleman’s statements impossible. 

Nevertheless, Superior Court Judge Michael Hartmere sentenced Valentine to 100 years in prison. For reference, a life-without-parole sentence in the state is 99 years: Hartmere went beyond that. Connecticut’s Board of Pardons and Paroles released Valentine to a halfway house in May 2022. 

Three versions of the CIU memo have surfaced while Valentine’s claim of innocence was pending: one dated May 27, 2022, a week after that meeting in Attorney Garg’s office, another dated July 8, 2022, and the third date September 16, 2022 and released last week. According to Taubes, the May 27, 2022 memo is substantially similar to the one he viewed a week earlier, but each new memo was successively more dilute than the one before. 

But the key difference between the July and September memos is significant in that the September memo – the one officially released to the public – completely absolves New Haven prosecutors. In the September memo, ‘official misconduct’ is omitted as a cause to doubt the integrity of Valentine’s conviction and replaced with a footnote that reads: “Considering the evidence and relevant context the CIU considered “official misconduct” as a basis; however, this office ultimately determined that this claim was insufficiently verifiable.”

Twenty-three further deletions helped the CIU wipe the conclusion of official misconduct.

A finding of official misconduct necessarily implicates the state’s attorney’s office; police are connected to criminal prosecutions through prosecutors. And if they knew a detective might have engaged in questionable tactics during the investigation of a crime and they insist on presenting the evidence that springs from those tactics, they’re violating the rules of professional conduct themselves. 

Often proving what prosecutors know about the police they call as witnesses is a challenge. But it’s not an obstacle in the Valentine case. 

As I wrote earlier, Judge David Gold, then a state’s attorney, wrote a memo that was kept under seal for years that specifically called into question New Haven Police Detective Greene’s tactics. Attorneys at the state’s attorney’s office in New Haven in the 1990’s — when Valentine was tried by them on two separate occasions — knew about this memo. They argued against disclosing it to defense attorneys, and they knew Greene didn’t play the game fairly. And they still let evidence tainted by Greene be presented to a jury — twice.

Even if they feign ignorance about Greene’s dirty tricks at the time of Valentine’s trials, they were confirmed when a man named Eric Ham sued him and fellow New Haven police department detective Michael Sweeney for common-law malicious prosecution, false arrest and federal civil rights claims. The jury found Greene and Sweeney liable on all counts and awarded Ham $1.4 million. The Supreme Court of Connecticut eventually affirmed the jury’s verdict. 

New Haven prosecutors — and the CIU staff and the CIU Panel — know about Greene and the state’s reliance on him. And they still refuse to provide any relief to Valentine. 

The issue of whether Daryl Valentine will be cleared will be decided by the Supervisory State’s Attorney for the Judicial District of New Haven, John P. Doyle, who is basically the managing prosecutor Supervisory for the Judicial District of New Haven and a lawyer who has worked beside some of the prosecutors involved in Valentine’s case. Valentine was tried in 1994 and 1998. Attorney Doyle returned to New Haven last year after working in the Chief State’s Attorney’s office for two years. From 1998 to 2020, though, he worked in New Haven.

This isn’t the first instance of Connecticut handing the state’s attorneys total control over cases. For years, no one sentenced to more than three years in prison could present a bid for a reduced punishment to a judge unless the prosecutor agreed to it. The law was eventually rolled back in 2021, most likely because it offered a quick way to release people from state prisons while the coronavirus blew through these closed spaces. 

State’s attorneys have similar control in conviction review. According to the protocol, the lead attorney in that district is the arbiter of whether or not a CIU claimant can get relief. The CIU can conclude that the conviction has been undermined by facts they agree on, yet the same office that may have contributed to that injustice gets to make the final decision on whether the claimant gets cleared.

It’s just another instance of the various conflicts of interest baked into the CIU’s processes. 

Doyle promises to review the decision and he may just clear Valentine yet. Through a spokesperson, New Haven’s top prosecutor issued a statement that read, in part: “At this time, I am reviewing materials of the Conviction Integrity Unit and the decision of the Conviction Integrity Unit Review Panel regarding that report…I have requested Mr. Valentine’s attorneys to provide me with any additional material they would like me to consider. And while I will strive to complete my review as quickly as possible, my primary goal is to ensure that my review of the Panel’s decision and other materials is thorough and complete.”

But that future decision doesn’t erase the sordid patterns that have emerged just in the publication of the CIU and the CIU Panel’s first public decision. What the Panel’s decision says – besides that prosecutors will protect their own – is worth noting as it sets a standard for future innocence determinations. It says that reliable convictions can be built upon incredible, disproven testimony secured by police who have demonstrated histories of threatening and coercing witnesses.

According to defense attorney David Keenan, that in itself is “a violation of the SAO’s [State’s Attorney’s Office] own protocol, which states that the criteria for eligibility/relief includes either actual innocence or evidence that would ‘cause a reasonable person to lose confidence in the conviction due to issues of official misconduct’ etc.”

Valentine’s is the only decision the public has seen so far, but the CIU needs to reassure Connecticut taxpayers that the unit hasn’t been established to bless any criminal conviction the state churns out.

Bozelko served more than six years at the York Correctional Institution. While she was incarcerated for non-violent crimes that remain on appeal, Bozelko published a book of poetry entitled Up the River: An Anthology (Bleakhouse, 2013).