SF District Attorney

Da Boudin and Assemblymember Levine Announce Introduction of First-In-The-Nation Approach to Addressing Wrongful Convictions

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CONTACT:

Rachel Marshall, (415) 416-4468 / Rachel.Marshall@sfgov.org, Director of Communications   

Today, San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin and Assemblymember Marc Levine announced the introduction of AB 2706, Innocence Commission Pilot Programs.  This bill would establish Innocence Commission Pilot Programs—a panel of experts selected by the District Attorneys in three counties to review credible claims of wrongful conviction.  AB 2706 is a first-in-the-nation approach to addressing the scourge of wrongful convictions and fulfilling district attorneys’ duty to prevent and rectify the conviction of innocent persons. 

“Wrongful convictions undermine trust in our criminal legal system and violate fundamental principles of justice and due process,” said District Attorney Chesa Boudin.  “Prosecutors are tasked with securing justice; doing so requires us to correct past injustices. I started the San Francisco District Attorney’s Innocence Commission to ensure that my office is not only moving forward but also looking backwards to right past wrongs.  I am honored to be cosponsoring AB 2706 with Assemblymember Levine to expand on the model we initiated in San Francisco and to build towards a legal system where no one is convicted for a crime they did not commit.”

“California’s pursuit of justice requires us to seek the truth,” said Assemblymember Marc Levine. “The incarceration of a wrongfully convicted person is a stain on our criminal justice system. AB 2706 will provide the courts, district attorneys and the public with an important tool to investigate and address credible claims of wrongful conviction of an incarcerated person. The creation of Innocence Commissions are necessary to resolve historic biases and ensure that all people have equitable access to justice.”

Wrongful convictions are a significant problem in the United States—and California is no exception. Since the National Registry of Exonerations began tracking wrongful convictions in 1989, there have been more than 27o known wrongful convictions in California – causing innocent Californians to lose a total of 2,104 years of their lives, and costing California tax-payers over $275 million.  These wrongful convictions occurred as the real perpetrators of crime avoided consequences for their actions and victims were denied justice.

Although a growing number of prosecutors’ offices across the country and in California have formed Conviction Integrity units with the intention of re-examining questionable convictions, many of these units have failed to fulfill their stated purpose because they lack resources, flexibility, transparency, and independence in the review process.  While some internal units are highly effective, many are simply window dressing, or what the Quattrone Center for the Fair Administration of Justice at the University of Pennsylvania calls CRINOS—Conviction Review Units in Name Only.  Moreover, post-conviction cases where an incarcerated person alleges that they have been wrongfully convicted can take years to investigate and litigate through the traditional adversarial process.  By contrast, the Innocence Commission pilot programs established by AB 2706 provide a cost-effective way to efficiently and fairly review claims of wrongful convictions.

Proposed Pilot Program

AB 2706 will fulfill prosecutors’ duty to rectify the convictions of innocent persons.  The pilots will also save the state money, promote transparency, and strengthen confidence in our criminal legal system.

AB 2706 will:

  • Create a pilot program whereby three district attorneys in three counties will establish Innocence Commissions to review potential wrongful conviction cases;
  • Affirm the Innocence Commissions’ ability to issue subpoenas and compel production of documents and testimony to efficiently and thoroughly investigate alleged wrongful convictions;
  • Affirm that a district attorney’s decision to seek relief from the court based on a recommendation from the Innocence Commission is entitled to great deference by the court; and
  • Require participating district attorneys’ offices to track specified metrics and report them to the Attorney General’s office quarterly to evaluate the efficacy of the pilot program.

San Francisco’s Innocence Commission

AB 2706 builds on and replicates the success of the Innocence Commission established by San Francisco District Attorney Boudin in September 2020.  The San Francisco District Attorney’s Innocence Commission evaluates cases in which an incarcerated person asserts that they were wrongfully convicted in a San Francisco case.  The Commission is led by Professor Lara Bazelon, Director of the Criminal & Juvenile Justice and Racial Justice Clinics at University of San Francisco Law School.  The Commission is made up of scholars, legal practitioners, and experts who volunteer their time, including the Honorable Judge LaDoris Cordell (Ret.); medical expert Dr. George Woods;[1] San Francisco District Attorney and Chief of the Post-Conviction Unit Arcelia Hurtado; and San Francisco Deputy Public Defender Jacque Wilson.  If the Commission, after evaluating all of the available evidence and conducting any necessary re-investigation, votes by a majority to vacate the conviction, the Commission prepares a findings of fact and conclusions of law memorandum that serves as the basis to seek to vacate the conviction.  The District Attorney retains the final decision-making power on each case. In its first full year of operation, the Commission completed the review and investigation of two cases and the review of its third case is now underway. 

“Serving on the SFDA’s Innocence Commission has been one of the great honors of my professional life,” Professor Lara Bazelon said.  “The work we do together to help free innocent people—most of whom have languished in prison for decades—is absolutely vital to ensuring that justice is done and that these catastrophic errors are corrected.  I am grateful to the SFDA for recognizing the depth of the problem and creating a powerful vehicle to address it.” 

Judge LaDoris Cordell (Ret.) says of her work on the Innocence Commission: “I have dedicated my career to improving the fairness of our justice system, which is why I agreed to serve on the SFDA’s Innocence Commission.  Our work is crucial to maintaining the public’s confidence in the integrity of the legal system by ensuring that wrongful conviction claims will be thoroughly investigated and, where appropriate, reversed.”

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[1] Dr. George Woods is currently on leave and Dr. Michael Meade is serving as interim commissioner.

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