Efforts to overturn wrongful criminal convictions are growing

Family members of Charles Ray Finch, who spent 43 years in a North Carolina prison for a murder he did not commit, joined with members of the Duke Law Wrongful Convictions Clinic to celebrate his release earlier this year. The clinic, co-directed by James Coleman (second from left) and Theresa Newman (fourth from right) spent years fighting to secure Finch's freedom. (Photo from the Duke Law School Facebook page).

Within the first month of its May 31 release, the Ava DuVernay-directed Netflix docudrama series "When They See Us" had been viewed by over 23 million Netflix accounts. It tells the story of the five Black and Brown teenagers who were wrongfully convicted of the 1989 rape of a white jogger in New York's Central Park, an incident that brought out the worst of America's deep racial tensions.

The series forced the U.S. to take a look at itself and the five teenagers — Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana, and Korey Wise, now grown men — who were publicly vilified before setting foot into the courtroom and sent to prison for a crime they did not commit. Their convictions were vacated in 2002 after a convicted murderer and serial rapist serving a life sentence confessed after a chance encounter with Wise, who was serving time in the same New York prison.

The multiple Emmy-nominated series also sparked conversations about the ongoing flaws of the U.S. criminal justice system and awakened many viewers to the fact that this is not an isolated case.

Indeed, eight days before the series debuted, Charles Ray Finch was freed from a North Carolina prison after serving 43 years for a murder he did not commit. Now 81, Finch left in a wheelchair, having suffered a stroke while incarcerated. But his freedom didn't come about thanks to a chance meeting and confession: It was won after nearly 15 years of hard work by attorneys and law students working with the Wrongful Convictions Clinic at Duke Law School in Durham, North Carolina. Finch is the seventh prisoner it's freed to date. The clinic is co-directed by James Coleman and Theresa Newman.

Launched in 2007, the Wrongful Convictions Clinic is a law course that investigates incarcerated felons' claims of innocence by interviewing inmates, locating witnesses, writing legal documents, and gathering testimony from experts. The clinic works in concert with the Duke Law Innocence Project, a volunteer student group with a shared mission. The project is part of the national Innocence Network, which includes 67 organizations operating across the U.S., internationally, and in all 13 Southern states to provide pro bono legal and investigative services to convicted individuals seeking to prove their innocence.

Among the Innocence Network's founders is the Innocence Project, which was established in 1992 by attorneys Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld at the Cardozo School of Law at New York's Yeshiva University. They were motivated by a federal study that found misidentification by eyewitnesses was a factor in over 70 percent of wrongful convictions. The group's work has exonerated more than 365 people based on DNA testing, including 20 people who spent time on death row.

As the National Registry of Exonerations notes, these innocence organizations (IOs) play a crucial role in reinvestigating convictions from scratch and bringing forth evidence that may have been left out during the original investigation and trial. Last year IOs achieved a record 86 exonerations, up from 70 in 2017.

Prosecutors' offices get involved 

IOs are not the only organizations working to bring justice to the wrongly convicted. So are conviction integrity units (CIUs), divisions of prosecutorial offices that work to prevent, identify, and remedy false convictions.

The first CIU was created in Dallas County, Texas, in 2007. Between 2001 and 2007, DNA evidence exonerated 13 Texas prisoners of the crimes for which they had been convicted. So when Craig Watkins took office as Dallas County's first Black district attorney, he made the bold move of creating the nation's first CIU.

Watkins ordered the review of over 400 cases in the county. His office also worked closely with the Innocence Project of Texas to find cases that appeared to warrant a review. During Watkins' tenure, over 30 people were exonerated. Mike Ware, the first head of the Dallas County CIU, currently serves as the executive director of the state's IO. 

Last year there were 44 CIUs in the United States — almost three times the number there were just five years earlier — and they helped secure 58 exonerations, according to the National Registry of Exonerations. Ten of those CIUs are in the South. Fulton County, Georgia, home to Atlanta, just formed one this year, and CIUs are also operating in populous counties in Florida, Tennessee, and Texas. 

Earlier this year, for example, Clifford Williams Jr. and his nephew Hubert Nathan Myers were exonerated in Florida 42 years after being sentenced to death and life in prison, respectively, for a murder they did not commit. In 2017, after reading that the first CIU in the state was being created by newly-elected State Attorney Melissa Nelson of Florida's Fourth Judicial Circuit serving Clay, Duvall, and Nassau counties, Myers wrote to Nelson, professing their innocence. The CIU reviewed their case in 2018 and found "no credible evidence of guilt."

From the creation of the first U.S. CIU in 2007 through 2018, the organizations' work brought about over 340 exonerations. But there are concerns that CIUs might not be utilized to their full potential since they're staffed by career prosecutors who are charged with investigating their colleagues.

That's one reason why there's a growing trend of CIUs working cooperatively with IOs. In 2018, for example, CIUs and IOs cooperated in 45 exonerations. This number is expected to grow as more prosecutors' offices create CIUs. 

The partnership between IOs and CIUs will be critical in addressing the disproportionate impact of wrongful convictions on Black and Brown people, who account for 222 of the 362 people proved innocent by DNA, and 84 of the 164 survivors of death row, according to the Innocence Project.