“We need to be able to look at old cases, especially where someone is claiming that they are wrongfully convicted,” says Assistant District Attorney Robert Jones, who leads the Conviction Review Unit at the Nashville District Attorney’s office.
According to the National Registry of Exonerations, 25 Tennessee inmates have been exonerated since 1989. Combined, they lost over 230 years behind bars for crimes they did not commit.
Yet despite the help of nonprofit groups like the Innocence Project, it can be hard to prove a wrongful conviction. The Davidson County D.A.’s Conviction Review Unit began operating in December 2016 to make it just a little easier.
In late January, the unit released new protocols. In a memo to all assistant district attorneys in Davidson County, District Attorney General Glenn R. Funk laid out some principles:
“It is the prosecutor’s duty to protect the innocent before, during and after trial. The prosecutor is to seek truth and justice, not merely obtain convictions.”
Therefore, prosecutors should promptly disclose any new, credible, and material evidence that creates a reasonable likelihood that a defendant is not guilty of the offense of which they were convicted. If a prosecutor is presented with clear and convincing evidence that a defendant was convicted in Davidson County of an offense they did not commit, the prosecutor is to seek to remedy that conviction.
Conviction Review Unit reviews cases upon new, credible evidence of innocence
Jones, the assistant D.A. in charge of the unit, explained that it is not intended to second guess the decisions of judges or juries. Instead, they provide a new set of eyes when a defendant has new evidence that they may actually be innocent.
As of early January, 74 prisoners had filed applications asking for their cases to be reviewed. Many have been rejected for lack of any new, credible evidence of innocence. The unit was actively engaged in 17 cases.
An example of a case being reviewed is that of Joseph W., who was convicted in 2005 of a 1998 murder. New testing showed that Joseph’s DNA was not on the murder weapon. And, the only witness has apparently changed her story more than once.
Nashville is a bit of a front-runner in this area. There are over three thousand district attorney offices nationwide, but only 36 currently have conviction review units.
People with unjust convictions and their families can obtain a Conviction Review Unit application for Davidson County convictions by visiting the Conviction Review Unit’s website.