There is no longer any debate that the criminal justice system generates wrongful convictions, cases in which innocent people are sentenced to long periods of prison for crimes they did not commit. But in the absence of DNA evidence, proving actual innocence is a difficult undertaking.
Traditional appellate practice cannot address the plight of the wrongfully convicted, because new evidence cannot be relied upon on appeal. To address this problem, in 2002, CAL developed Justice First-The Collateral Relief Project, a program designed to detect wrongful convictions and aggressively pursue claims of actual innocence.
The mission of Justice First is to ensure that wrongful convictions are detected and investigated as early in the appellate process as possible. Cases referred to the project typically involve issues such as mistaken identifications, unreliable confessions, ineffective assistance of counsel, and prosecutorial misconduct.
Through careful screening, those cases that warrant additional factual investigation are quickly identified so that effective strategies can be developed and implemented. Teams of attorneys, law student interns, and legal fellows work together to ensure that no possible avenue of investigation goes unpursued. This approach has been remarkably successful, resulting in numerous reversals.
Recent Justice First victories include:
- Robbery conviction vacated where our client had been convicted of robbing two commercial stores based on eyewitness identifications and surveillance videotape. Upon reinvestigation, we learned that an uncalled eyewitness at one of the stores, who did not identify our client at a lineup, would have testified that our client was definitely not the perpetrator. Also, a closer examination of the surveillance videotapes from both robberies showed that the perpetrator had to have been appreciably shorter than the perpetrator. This was the first case ever presented to the New York County District Attorney's Conviction Integrity Panel. Upon review, the DA's office consented to vacate the conviction on the grounds of newly discovered evidence and prosecutorial misrepresentations at trial. The charges were eventually dismissed.
- Robbery conviction vacated where our client had been convicted based on a single eyewitness identification. Upon a reinvestigation, we discovered documentary evidence indicating that our client had left New York City to go to Connecticut to visit his family on the weekend of the robbery. Further investigation showed that a distinct series of events occurred in Connecticut on the weekend of the crime that definitively placed our client in Connecticut on that particular weekend. This case was the second case ever presented to the New York County District Attorney's Conviction Integrity Panel. After a four-day hearing before Justice Bruce Allen, the court granted our motion to vacate the conviction and ordered a new trial.
- Robbery conviction vacated where our client was convicted based on a single-witness identification and the prosecution had failed to prosecute his alleged co-defendant. Suspecting a Brady violation, we conducted an extensive investigation, which included interviewing the co-defendant and his attorney and determining that our client and the co-defendant were strangers to one another. We asked the Bronx District Attorney's office to look into the matter. They conceded that a Brady violation had occurred: the complainant had told the trial assistant that he had wrongly identified the co-defendant. The conviction was vacated on consent, and the prosecution did not go forward with a retrial. The case was ultimately dismissed.
- Attempted murder conviction vacated based on ineffective assistance of trial counsel, who, among other things, failed to discover evidence of our client's mental retardation and illness. Following a hearing, the court vacated the conviction, and our client subsequently received a much-reduced sentence.
Claudia Trupp is the Project's Director.