Other Voices

Tarrant DA examines claims of innocence, wrongful convictions

Tarrant County Criminal District Attorney Sharen Wilson.
Tarrant County Criminal District Attorney Sharen Wilson. Star-Telegram

The Tarrant County Criminal District Attorney’s Office has historically been at the forefront in promoting transparency and fairness in the Texas criminal justice system.

It was the first in Texas to implement an open-file protocol that shares case information with defendants, the first to provide electronic discovery access to defense attorneys, the first to establish a discovery compliance policy.

So, when then-newly elected DA Sharen Wilson created a Conviction Integrity Unit, it seemed yet another instance of Tarrant County’s continuing at the vanguard.

At its inception in July, Tarrant’s unit was one of only 17 in the United States, which means most people have no idea what these units do or why we need them.

Typically, CIUs review claims of actual innocence and wrongful convictions. They act as prosecutor counterparts to Innocence Projects, although they function collaboratively, not as adversaries.

These units have varying responsibilities, structures and objectives. For example, in Tarrant County we task the CIU not only with retroactive reviews, but also with developing proactive protocols and systems to prevent wrongful convictions.

We want to not only identify and correct any unexpected negative outcomes, but to determine the root causes leading to these outcomes and learn whether these outcomes might signal flaws in the criminal justice system that should be addressed.

Different CIUs contend with different problems. One CIU has addressed drug cases that were formerly plead without lab reports and turned out not to be drugs. They should be commended for re-examining those cases.

We won’t face that same problem here, because for years lab reports have been required on all our drug cases.

Some CIUs exist also in jurisdictions that may not have had long-standing policies providing defense access to files.

We hope that having had such a policy for more than 40 years will limit the wrongful convictions that often accompany restricted or nonexistent defense access.

So why would we need a Conviction Integrity Unit in Tarrant County, or anywhere else?

▪ It is impossible for any system to be error-free.

Despite our best efforts, the criminal justice system is imperfect. If an innocent person is wrongfully convicted, we, as prosecutors, must ensure that the person does not continue to be wrongfully imprisoned.

Moreover, prosecutors have ethical obligations that continue beyond conviction. Without the structure of a CIU, satisfying these post-conviction responsibilities can be challenging.

Take the recent DNA mixture issue generated by the Texas Forensic Science Commission’s review. Having a CIU allowed Tarrant County to quickly and efficiently provide meaningful notification of the problem to affected defendants while minimizing the burden on laboratories and courts.

▪ The public won’t trust us if we don’t admit and correct errors.

For example, we know that flying is considered extremely safe. Your odds of dying from a car crash, a bicycle accident, a bee sting are greater.

But if there were a plane crash tomorrow and the aviation industry said, “Flying is really safe, so we’ve decided not to investigate,” how would you feel about getting on a plane?

People, the public and our juries, expect us to take every conceivable step to get it right or make it right if we fail.

▪ If we don’t convict the right person, we haven’t done our job.

When an innocent person is wrongfully imprisoned, the true culprit is necessarily granted the freedom to commit other crimes at the expense of victims and public safety. Nothing about that resembles justice.

The criminal justice system must willingly engage in the sort of self-reflection essential to maintaining the public’s trust and advancing confidence in the processes that lead to convictions.

By creating a Conviction Integrity Unit, the Tarrant County’s Criminal District Attorney’s Office demonstrates its commitment to that charge.

Dawn Boswell is chief of the Tarrant County Criminal District Attorney’s Office Conviction Integrity Unit.