Prosecutors Usually Send People to Prison.
These Prosecutors Are Getting Them Out.
Prisoners who fought for years to prove their innocence couldn’t win in court, no matter how much evidence they amassed.
Then the offices that put them away got involved. Aaron Salter served 15 years in prison before being cleared in 2018. He is renovating a home in Highland Park, Mich., to serve as a shelter to help other exonerated prisoners re-enter society.Credit…Brittany Greeson for The New York Times
- After Aaron Salter was convicted of murdering a man he had never met, he immediately began trying to track down the real killer from behind bars. When another inmate described the crime in detail, Mr. Salter began investigating him. Eventually that other man signed an affidavit swearing that Mr. Salter was innocent.
Yet appeals courts refused to grant him a new trial.
Then, last year, his lawyers sent his file back to the Wayne County prosecutor in Detroit — the same office that had sent him away for life without parole in 2004. This time, the file landed in the hands of the office’s new conviction integrity unit, which determined that the case against Mr. Salter had been based on mistaken identification by the prosecution’s only witness. “Three months later, I was free,” Mr. Salter said. The unit that exonerated him is part of a major shift in the role of some of the nation’s district attorneys, who have traditionally focused on sending people to prison. Now, a growing number of prosecutors are also working to get wrongly convicted people out.
Their efforts have provided an unflattering look at a system focused on winning convictions, sometimes with little apparent regard for a suspect’s actual guilt. In some instances, re-examining old cases has forced prosecutors to go up against their predecessors or their city’s police force, accusing them of wrongdoing or negligence. Almost 60 local prosecutors across the country have created special units like the one in Detroit to review questionable convictions, including the state’s attorney in Baltimore, Marilyn Mosby, who on Monday persuaded a judge to exonerate three men convicted of murdering a fellow student when they were teenagers. They had spent 36 years behind bars.
Half of these units are less than four years old, and the pace at which they are being created has accelerated in recent years, tracking an increase in reform-minded prosecutors winning election in mid-size and large cities. The units have helped clear almost 400 people over the past dozen years, and they helped win releases in more than a third of the 165 exonerations recorded in 2018, according to a national registry maintained by three universities. The exonerated were largely African-American men convicted of crimes like murder, robbery and drug offenses. Their prosecutions were found in many cases to have been marred by perjury, false accusations or misconduct by police officers or prosecutors.
Some of these units have proven far more effective than others. The unit run by the Philadelphia district attorney, Larry Krasner, for example, has won release for 10 inmates during the past two years. Ms. Mosby has won exonerations for nine people since she took office in Baltimore in 2015, but not without criticism from some former prosecutors and police officers who consider it a rebuke of their work. A detective who worked on the case of the three men who were released this week accused her office of trying to make police “look like liars and cheats.”
Although the release of the men might have cast doubt on the integrity of the criminal justice system, Ms. Mosby said, the mission of a prosecutor should be to seek justice.
“What that means is that you have an ethical and a legal obligation as a prosecutor to ensure that you exonerate those that are wrongly accused, convicted and incarcerated,” Ms. Mosby said in an interview Tuesday.
The unit in the Detroit prosecutor’s office that secured the release of Mr. Salter was established two years ago. It has helped free 11 people, including five who were determined to be innocent and six whose prosecutions were profoundly flawed. “The number of cases they have put together, at the pace they have done, is just extraordinary,” said Samuel Gross, a professor emeritus at the University of Michigan law school who helped establish the exonerations registry.
The Wayne County unit is led by Valerie Newman, a former federal public defender. Ms. Newman said that her office had set out to rectify what she saw as a lack of prosecutorial accountability.
“We’re not afraid to take a look at those mistakes and correct them if things have gone wrong,” she said.
Valerie Newman, a former federal public defender, heads the conviction integrity unit in Wayne County, which championed Mr. Salter’s exoneration in Detroit.Credit…Brittany Greeson for The New York Times
Her work has won over skeptics who doubted the sincerity of the office’s commitment.
“After 20 years in the business, you get kind of jaded,” said Wolfgang Mueller, a lawyer in Detroit who is representing Mr. Salter in a civil suit. But Ms. Newman impressed him. “They have everybody talking to the old witnesses,” he said. “They have really brought fresh eyes to it.”
Not every unit has such a strong track record. At least nine have been operating for three or more years without a single exoneration, according to data from the exonerations registry. Seven others have only one exoneration in that period.
“For a fair number of offices, they are often no more than cosmetics,” said Rachel Barkow, a law professor at New York University who recently completed a term on the United States Sentencing Commission.
Some law enforcement officials have questioned the very principle of reopening settled convictions and pushed back on efforts to free inmates. The prosecutor in Kansas City, Kan., recently won funding for an integrity unit despite criticism from the local sheriff and police chief, who said that it would give the district attorney’s office “unchecked” power to revisit guilty verdicts. In many cases, these units are relying on groundwork laid by nonprofits like the Innocence Project and convicted prisoners themselves, who, like Mr. Salter, amassed significant evidence of their innocence but couldn’t get judges to listen.
“Courts are not designed to investigate cases the way this unit is,” said Darrell Siggers, who spent 34 years in prison before Ms. Newman’s unit won his release last year. He was convicted based on erroneous testimony from a police officer who said that a bullet in the victim’s body matched one found in Mr. Siggers’s apartment building. Mr. Siggers was able to disprove that after a law professor at the University of Michigan helped him pay for his own ballistics analysis. Indeed, the firearms unit at the Detroit crime lab was so riddled with errors that it was shut down in 2008. Yet judges still refused to grant Mr. Siggers a new trial.
“Courts are confined to procedural errors,” said Mr. Siggers, who now runs a company that helps prisoners file requests for public records about their cases. “But the conviction integrity’s unit’s main purpose is the truth.”
Timothy Williams contributed reporting.
Prosecutors and Exon