Multnomah County District Attorney Rod Underhill has announced a plan to have one of his longest serving prosecutors take on a new role in the office: to review defendants’ claims of innocence and prevent future wrongful convictions. Numerous conviction integrity units (CIU) have cropped up around the country in the last five years (most recently in New Orleans), usually in response to heightened public concern over innocence cases in a particular locale. Though Underhill insists the move is not related to any specific cases, it’s notable that Lisa Roberts was exonerated out of Multnomah County earlier this year.
Ratto will review claims of innocence after convictions have occurred and update office protocols on everything from prosecutors’ obligations on sharing evidence with defense attorneys to how to use eyewitness identification of suspects.
Underhill said he hopes that assigning one deputy to the work will improve the ability to track the cases and boost public confidence in the county’s prosecutions. In the past, he said, a number of prosecutors throughout the office have juggled the cases, but there was no central contact.
As Underhill’s comments suggest, district attorneys are seeing CIUs as an opportunity to strengthen public confidence following a decade of high-profile exonerations and growing awareness about the frequency and causes of wrongful convictions. Whether or not the CIUs are actually effective at addressing wrongful conviction claims differs from county to county. For instance, in New York state, the Brooklyn DAs office has already exonerated a “striking number” of people since it expanded its CIU in January, 2014; on the other hand, critics of the Manhattan DA’s office point to its CIU’s low rate of reversals and adversarial bent as evidence that it’s really there to provide cover for prosecutors.
Part of Underhill’s plan, in addition to reviewing claims of innocence, is to develop office policies and procedures to that would regulate prosecutorial conduct, including:
- Discovery obligations
- Eyewitness identification
- Ethics and professionalism
- Confidential informants
- Proffers and cooperation agreements
- File closing protocols
- Jail call protocols
His press release is available in full here.