According to the National Registry of Exonerations, this country has exonerated 2,941 individuals since 1989. Together, these individuals lost more than 25,600 years off of their lives. Yet, the U.S. Supreme Court has taken a regressive approach, recently upholding the argument that “innocence isn’t enough” to overturn a conviction.
In response to renewed attention to wrongful convictions, many jurisdictions have set up conviction review units. These units work to prevent, identify, and remedy false convictions. Surprisingly, Denver (by which I mean Colorado’s 2nd Judicial District, which encompasses Denver City and County) was the last major city in the United States to implement a mechanism for reviewing past convictions. How did Denver, a city at the forefront on some of the country’s most far-reaching criminal justice reforms, fall behind the judicial districts comprising Boulder, Jefferson County, and the 89 other conviction review units around the country?
Since it began tracking exonerations, the national registry lists 4 recent exonerations from Denver, including Lorenzo Montoya, wrongfully convicted at the age of 14. Alarico Joe Medina was convicted of murder in 1990, despite testimony coming from a legally blind witness. Most recently, Clarence El-Moses was exonerated after spending 28 years behind bars for a crime he did not commit.
Conviction review units exist to examine questionable convictions and guard against future error. The Denver District Attorney’s Office recently unveiled a tepid outline for a conviction review unit. As part of the proposal, the Denver DA’s office will oversee the initiative. The self-laudatory announcement lacked a description of any community partnerships, accountability or vision for ensuring a more just city. If the new review unit is to have any chance of success, the community must be full partners with it.
Other jurisdictions have established robust partnerships to ensure impartiality and community collaboration. The point is not to impugn the work of the district attorney; instead, it is largely focused on the instances where new information or evidence comes to light that warrants review of the case. Unfortunately, the Denver Conviction Review Unit identifies no community partners and seriously limits the number of cases eligible for review.
In order to earn the attention of the Denver Conviction Review Unit, a case must meet one of the following criteria:
The person has served more than 10 years and is over 50
The person has served more than 15 years and is older than 35
The person is serving a sentence for a habitual count, not for a crime of violence
The person has a serious medical condition or is terminally ill
It appears that under this proposal, justice is only available to those who meet very arbitrary criteria. Is an exoneration more justified because the innocent person has turned 50 or has served more than 15 years? Joe Arridy, executed at the age of 23 for a crime he did not commit, would not have been eligible for conviction review under this proposal.
It is clear that Denver has lagged in establishing a mechanism for reviewing past convictions, but this delay presents an opportunity to improve on existing models. Any effort by Denver must include a representative of the District Attorney’s office, a defense attorney, a victim’s advocate, and other discretionary members. This work must be endowed with objectivity, or the entire process will be thrown into doubt. One model to emulate is the New Orleans Conviction Review Project, which consists of a partnership between the Innocence Project of New Orleans and the New Orleans District Attorney’s Office.
Closer to home, Denver established the Citizen’s Oversight Board in 2004 to appoint an independent monitor, who serves as the civilian oversight agency for Denver Police. The new Conviction Review Unit should take a page from the Oversight Board and develop a community-based partnership that allows the people of Denver to have a seat at the table. Our community has rightfully received credit for some transformative steps to address inequities in the criminal justice system, but we lag behind its national and local peers in examining its criminal convictions.
When he issued an unconditional posthumous pardon for Arridy in 2011, Gov. Ritter stated “Pardoning Mr. Arridy cannot undo this tragic event in Colorado history. It is in the interests of justice and simple decency, however, to restore his good name.” Rather than issue feel-good proclamations, we should take the initiative and do our part to ensure that no proclamation ever needs to be issued.
This challenge presents an opportunity to develop a national model for conviction review. The solution is neither simple nor straightforward, and we know from exoneration data that justice isn’t always served in our community, but establishing an objective, community-driven avenue for reviewing past convictions would be a great first step in working to ensure justice for all in Denver.