Texas' criminal justice system is first in more than executions. In 2007, Dallas District Attorney Craig Watkins set up the nation's first conviction integrity unit, charged with investigating cases in which the wrong person might have been put behind bars. Twenty-six prisoners have been exonerated in Dallas County to date. In 2010, New York City followed suit, and a movement launched by Innocence Projects nationwide (Pennsylvania's, at Temple Law, opened in 2009) is now prompting other district attorneys to do the same.
Not so much in Philadelphia. When District Attorney Seth Williams first came into office, his transition team drafted a proposal for Philly's own conviction integrity unit. But Williams — perhaps tending to his image in anticipation of a rumored 2015 mayoral bid — rejects that proposal.
Elected in 2009 as a progressive replacement for arch-conservative DA Lynne Abraham, Williams has received national accolades for being "smart on crime." Though Williams has made some progress (namely in diverting minor marijuana users from prosecution), he insists the state's Post-Conviction Relief Act — which allows defendants a year after conviction, or a mere 60 days after new evidence emerges, to file for relief — is sufficient.
But an estimated 10,000 wrongful convictions occur nationwide each year, according to Pennsylvania Innocence Project legal director Marissa Bluestine. "In Pennsylvania, you're talking about potentially 2,000 people," she says. "For the public to see the prosecutor's office take an affirmative act to ensure that the convictions ... are good ... would go a long way to restore confidence."
Even Harrisburg is ahead of Philly on this.
In September, the state Senate's Advisory Committee on Wrongful Convictions issued a report urging Pennsylvania to rethink eyewitness identifications (marred by misleading lineups); confessions (flawed interrogations); legal representation (overworked defense counsel); informants (especially jailhouse ones); prosecutorial misconduct (like withholding evidence); and forensic evidence (impacted by inadequate preservation). State Sen. Stewart Greenleaf, a onetime law-and-order crusader who is now a reform advocate, introduced the recommendations as Senate Bills 1337 and 1338.
But Williams, erstwhile reformer, signed a dissenting report calling the committee soft on crime. With an eye to higher office — where voters and editorial boards prize high conviction rates — he seems to be putting political expediency over justice.