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Commonwealth’s Attorney Launches Unit to Investigate Wrongful Convictions

Arlington’s top prosecutor has launched a Conviction Review Unit to investigate “claims of innocence and wrongful convictions.”

The unit will look into claims of wrongful convictions, including those who were convicted at trial of murder, kidnapping, aggravated assault, and other felonies.

Just last year, the Virginia General Assembly passed a law that actually expands the pool of defendants who are eligible to challenge convictions.

Established within the Commonwealth’s Attorney Office for Arlington County and Falls Church, the unit will also be responsible for litigating motions for post-conviction DNA testing and responding to Freedom of Information Act requests.

It’s similar to the Conviction Integrity Unit that the Virginia Attorney General’s office launched in January.

Currently, no other local jurisdiction in the Commonwealth has officially launched a unit of this nature.

Commonwealth’s Attorney Parisa Dehghani-Tafti tells ARLnow that they’ve already been doing related work for the past year, since she first entered office.

It’s about setting up a system for responding to inquiries, she says, “in an intelligent manner and to be able to provide advice and recommendations… it’s really about putting a permanent name to it.”

No full-time staff will be assigned only to this unit, but rather will be made up of people at the CA’s office who are subject matter experts, have a variety of experiences, and report directly to the CA.

Dehghani-Tafti, who was elected after promising to reform the local criminal justice system, says that while she would have liked to have full-time staff members, there isn’t enough work.

“We do have to take time away from other work. But I think it’s time well spent because there is a huge public safety element to making sure that the convictions that you have are accurate and fair,” she says.

Currently, the unit is investigating three cases that have been brought to the office’s attention by attorneys. They are also reviewing 31 cases that involve “testimony about DNA mixtures… and problems with the forensic science.”

Dehghani-Tafti declined to provide more details about these cases only saying they are currently in the review stage.

Additionally, over the past year, they’ve also reviewed about 70 requests for early release from Virginia’s Department of Corrections due to COVID-19.

“That was part of the initial push to release early people who had about a year or so left on their sentences,” says Dehghani-Tafti.

The CA’s office says, in the end, only “a small number of those folks were released,” though has yet to provide an exact number.

Setting up a unit of this nature was a campaign promise of Dehghani-Tafti’s back when she ran for office in 2019. She says a Conviction Review Unit helps ensure integrity for both the court system and police.

“It serves a law enforcement function for both victims and for the community,” says Dehghani-Tafti. “If the wrong person is convicted, the actual perpetrator hasn’t been caught.”

It also aids the traditional appellate process.

“Even though we don’t have the power to ask a court to vacate a sentence, we are identifying [wrongful conviction] cases and are playing the appropriate advisory role to the parole board, [and] the attorney general’s office,” she says. “It’s important to be able to give good advice.”

The unit will also provide training and expertise to help prevent wrongful convictions in the future.

The Arlington County Police Department says that it is supportive and worked “in conjunction” with the CA on the forming of this unit.

“Our Criminal Investigations Section will work collaboratively [with the CA’s office] on any cases that come to our attention,” ACPD spokesperson Ashley Savage tells ARLnow.

When asked if the unit could potentially lead to undermining confidence in law enforcement’s work, Dehghani-Tafti says it actually does the opposite.

“If anything, checking ones’ work should create more trust in law enforcement, since it demonstrates transparency and willingness to correct errors,” she says.

While the CA’s office for Arlington may be the first in Virginia to officially set up such a unit, there are others in the country and even regionally.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia has a Conviction Integrity Unit. So too does Baltimore as well as a number of other major U.S. cities like Los Angeles, Manhattan, Dallas, and Philadelphia.

Dehghani-Tafti notes that CA Stephanie Morales in Portsmouth, Virginia is working on a similar unit as well.

In the end, setting up a Conviction Review Unit is about serving the community better, Dehghani-Tafti says.

“I don’t think anybody in Arlington would be happy with the notion that somebody is sitting in prison for something they didn’t commit,” she said. “And that somebody who is guilty is still running around.”

File photo

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