With wrongful conviction claims by inmates on the rise, the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office will be launching a task force of veteran prosecutors and criminal defense lawyers that will investigate the integrity of prior convictions.
Los Angeles County’s efforts to combat wrongful convictions make it one of a growing number of prosecutorial agencies across the country that are looking to identify and free innocent prisoners who were convicted of a crime they didn’t commit.
According to the LA Times, Dist. Atty. Jackie Lacey is requesting county supervisors to provide $1 million in funding for the new task force. Lacey’s office has said the funds are necessary to help the county keep up with increases in wrongful conviction claims as well as heightened publicity and media coverage surrounding these claims.
Innocence project groups are praising Lacey’s move, saying it sends the important message that the county will work to reverse injustice. Additionally, Los Angeles County’s initiative to reduce wrongful convictions could influence other counties throughout California to do the same.
“We have lost focus on the fact that justice means doing what is right, not what’s expedient,” says Casey Martin, Attorney, The Martin Law Firm. “Justice is about righting wrongs, and I think that the LA County Commission on wrongful convictions is a step in the right direction towards justice.”
The LA Times reports that Los Angeles County is now one of 15 counties nationwide to have created a task force devoted to investigating wrongful convictions. This extra layer of protection for criminal justice errors would be a literal life-saver in Los Angeles County, where more people are sent to California’s death row than any other county in the state.
Just last month, the county paid $8 million in a settlement with Obie Anthony, who was declared factually innocent. Anthony spent 17 years in prison after being convicted for a killing outside a South Los Angeles brothel.
In October, a judge overturned Susan Mellen’s murder conviction and said she had been wrongfully incarcerated for 17 years. Her conviction had been based on the testimony of a a habitual liar; the judge had remarked that “the criminal justice system failed.”
Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas said this task force will particularly help people of color, whom judges convict at disproportionately higher rates, and keep law enforcement officials in check.
“It’s another dimension of checks and balances in the criminal justice system, which I think is sorely needed,” he told the LA Times.
Before the task force can begin its work, the county Board of Supervisors must formally approve its funding, a decision which will likely come in the next few weeks.