AG office expands efforts to identify, overturn wrongful convictions
Attorney General Mark Herring is creating the OAG’s first Conviction Integrity Unit to expand efforts to identify and overturn wrongful convictions.
The unit will now be a distinct entity with a singular focus on evaluating and investigating claims of wrongful conviction, taking proactive steps to overturn wrongful convictions, and implementing important changes in the law that will finally allow for more wrongly convicted people to pursue their claims in the courts.
The unit will grow to include three full time attorneys and one investigator dedicated to identifying and correcting wrongful convictions.
“Our goal as a Commonwealth must always be justice and truth, not simply convictions, or preservation and defense of convictions in defiance of logic, facts, or new evidence,” Herring said. “To wrongly convict a person is to deny them untold opportunities and the chance to live their life in freedom and to choose their own path. It is a wrong that can never truly be righted.”
The General Assembly, last year, improved the legal process for identifying and overturning wrongful convictions – a foundational element to the criminal justice reforms advocated by Herring and Gov. Ralph Northam.
“For far too long, Virginia’s process for securing justice for the wrongfully convicted was hopelessly convoluted, requiring individuals to jump through countless hoops just to get the chance to make their case, and even then they faced a burden of proof so high that it often felt like the system was set up to give the illusion of hope, rather than pursue truth and justice. But now, Virginia has a process that will focus on the heart of the matter: whether someone is actually innocent of the crime for which they were convicted,” Herring said.
The work of the Conviction Integrity Unit is expected to grow in light of important changes to Virginia’s laws around wrongful convictions and the issuance of “writs of actual innocence,” which are orders issued by either the Court of Appeals of Virginia or the Virginia Supreme Court after the court finds that an individual did not actually commit the crime for which they were convicted and that they are actually innocent.
The addition of an in-house investigator is a major development that will expand the Conviction Integrity Unit’s ability to follow the facts and independently determine whether a person has been wrongly convicted. Instead of relying on law enforcement agencies who may have been involved in the original investigation, the Unit will now be able to conduct more independent investigations that help get to the truth of someone’s guilt or innocence.
Under legislation that the Office of Attorney General worked on in the last legislative session with chief patron House of Delegates Majority Leader Charniele Herring, the General Assembly has expanded the opportunities for wrongfully convicted individuals to pursue their claims, and eliminated many of the unnecessary procedural requirements that too often kept individuals from having their case heard on the merits.
“The creation of Virginia’s first statewide Conviction Integrity Unit is a momentous leap forward in the pursuit of justice, and one that was frankly unimaginable in Virginia just a few years ago,” Majority Leader Herring said. “It shows a true commitment by the Commonwealth and Attorney General Herring to doing justice in all cases, to writing wrongs, and to ensuring that no one is denied their freedom and liberty for a crime they didn’t commit.”