Denver District Attorney Beth McCann announced on June 8 her office launched a Conviction Review Unit.
The review unit, which received budget approval from the Denver City Council, is currently accepting applications to review claims for “actual innocence,” while also reviewing the rising amount of clemency applications from the Governor’s office and longer sentences that are not compatible with current law or standards of fairness and equity.
“If the wrong person is convicted the only person who benefits is the true offender,” McCann said in a statement. “Our prosecutorial teams put their hearts into ensuring that those who inflict harm on our community are rightfully held accountable for their actions. Nevertheless, it is critically important to ensure that justice is done in those rare instances where someone asserts a legitimate claim of actual innocence or a sentence that is now overly harsh in light of statute changes. It is equally important to ensure that we are always examining our work, learning lessons and constantly improving.”
The DA’s Office says there are currently seven possible claims of actual innocence being reviewed, with five cases under review for possible sentence reductions and 20 cases under consideration of clemency.
Deputy District Attorney Victoria Cisneros will lead up the team looking into these cases. She was formerly in the office’s appellate division and served as a representative with the Prosecution Leaders of Now. Her focus will be making sure the proper procedures are being followed and monitoring outside reviews and evidence testing by working with the Denver Police Department’s Crime Lab to ensure accuracy. The unit will also have an investigator and interns.
“Prior to going to law school, I worked with the defense community,” Cisneros said in a statement. “For this reason, I think I understand the concerns raised in this area. I also realized that the best way to affect change and fight for justice meant becoming a prosecutor. I am honored that DA McCann selected me to head the Conviction Review Unit and thank her for the opportunity.”
The unit will also be working with the office’s victim advocates making sure that communication is handled appropriately and empathetically. The district attorney’s office says once a conviction goes under review, it could give false hope to an offender, while also re-traumatizing victims and their loved ones. The DA’s Office noted that “for these reasons, reviews will be undertaken only when there is a legitimate claim of innocence and some specific steps that can be taken to test that assertion.”
Experts add that these types of units are critical for those who seek justice.
“Conviction review units have a vital role in prosecutor’s offices, ensuring that the prosecutor’s continuing obligation to pursue justice is met even in situations where the appellate courts might provide procedural hurdles,” said John Hollway, Executive Director for the Quattrone Center for the Fair Administration of Justice at the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School. “The structure of the Denver DA’s new unit, and its collaborations with defense attorneys and responsible innocence organizations is an important gesture of DA McCann’s commitment to accuracy and dedication to justice.”
The DA’s Office is also working with the Korey Wise Innocence Project at the University of Colorado Law School to review some of the cases the Innocence Project has brought forward. Those cases will now be reviewed by the Conviction Review Unit.