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Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Following High-Profile Exonerations, a Look at the County's Conviction Integrity Unit

Assistant County Prosecutor Jose Torres Discusses Formation, Oversight

Posted By on Wed, Dec 3, 2014 at 10:12 AM

click to enlarge Torres - COUNTY PROSECUTOR'S OFFICE
  • Torres
In April, Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Timothy McGinty announced the formation of the Convition Integrity Unit over at his office. Led by Assistant County Prosecutor Jose Torres, the unit was set up to process convicted offenders' claims of innocence — claims based on new and credible evidence.

With Ricky Jackson and Wiley Bridgeman free after nearly 40 years in prison, we figured it was a good time to catch up with the unit and learn more about how it fits into McGinty's broader overhaul of the prosecutor's office.

(Read Kyle Swenson's feature — published today — on the saga of how their exoneration came to be.)

“All of us in the criminal justice system have an obligation to seek justice and to seek the truth. We want to convict the guilty, not the innocent,” McGinty said as he announced the unit's conception in April. “So if we learn we have convicted the wrong person, we want to correct it. We always want to have open ears on the subject of innocence.”
With that in mind, he tapped Torres — former deputy legal counsel for Gov. Ted Strickland and former member of the Ohio Parole Board — to develop a process by which convicted offenders could send the office detailed claims of innocence. The Office of the Ohio Public Defender had looked to Torres to investigate a claim of innocence earlier in the year, and, seeing the success, McGinty urged him to develop a formal process for the county.

"He wanted to make sure that we are actually going after the guilty — make sure that we are convicting the guilty and not going after anybody who is innocent," Torres said. 

The criteria on which a claim of innocence must rest include: an open case in the county's Common Pleas Court, a claim of actual innocence — and one that's not deemed "frivolous" — and new and credible evidence of innocence. Also, of course, the convicted offender must be alive. It falls to a team of nine prosecuting attorneys (led by Assistant County Prosecutor Jose Torres) to examine these claims of innocence and, when applicable, file a motion to vacate the verdict.

"If you're dealing with the post-conviction process, the court's main objective is to determine whether the person had a fair trial," Torres told Scene, distinguishing the unit from the typical appeals process. "What we're trying to do is develop an extrajudicial system where we can look at the evidence — and if the person is alleging that he or she is actually innocent, regardless of whether the person had a fair trial or not, we're going to look into it."

At first, the Conviction Integrity Unit was rushed with applications. Torres said the stream has leveled off to three or four each month now. Most have been dismissed on technical grounds (some coming from outside the county, for instance), but Torres said the unit is still currently investigating multiple claims.

Nationwide, 87 people wrongly convicted of crimes were exonerated in 2013. Thousands more still stood by their claims of innocence. Exoneration records for the past 10 years in Cuyahoga County were not immediately available.

The Conviction Integrity Unit mirrors about 10 other, similar offices around the country. In particular, the Manhattan District Attorney's Office provided a clear model for Torres' work. "We made sure we had a good process in place that was open and thorough," he said. "We looked at the offices throughout the country that have conviction integrity units, and we developed the process that we have in Cuyahoga County today."

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