Cuyahoga prosecutor’s handling of Conviction Integrity Unit undermines its goal of integrity:
Cuyahoga prosecutor’s handling of Conviction Integrity Unit undermines its goal of integrity: Timothy Young and Mark Godsey
- Published: Dec. 18, 2022, 5:40 a.m.
Prosecutor O’Malley’s response to the resignation of the external members of the Cuyahoga County Conviction Integrity Unit underscore real problems identified by the resigning members.Cory Shaffer, cleveland.com
- Guest columnist, cleveland.com
The resignation of the external members of the Cuyahoga County Conviction Integrity Unit (CIU) and Prosecutor O’Malley’s response underscore real problems identified by the resigning members.
Mr. O’Malley’s response suggests that he perceives the CIU as a gift, and those who have been wrongly convicted should be grateful for any scraps of justice that he allows. He stated that “defendants were attempting to use deliberations of the External Review Panel as evidence in support of their claim for post-conviction relief. It is not evidence and that was never the intent of having an External Review Panel.”
To be sure, defendants like Marcus Blalock and Octavius Williams have tried to use exculpatory evidence uncovered in CIU investigations. That should be the intent of a CIU and would be consistent with due process and the purposes of a proper CIU.
Instead, Mr. O’Malley’s office has fought defense attorneys’ attempts to discover information about the CIU’s case reviews. It has ignored defense attorneys’ inquiries and failed to respond fully to public records requests. It has even tried to undermine the very evidence it collected, after the panel members reviewed it and voted for an exoneration, to justify Mr. O’Malley’s decisions opposing his own CIU’s recommendations and finding of innocence.
A prosecutor’s fundamental job is to seek justice, not seek convictions. At its inception, the CIU collaborated with the defense to exonerate Evin King and Ru-El Sailor. But collaborative days appear to be over. Mr. O’Malley’s current indifference to wrongful convictions was evidenced by his refusal to participate in the Supreme Court of Ohio’s Task Force on Conviction Integrity and Postconviction Review.
Further, Mr. O’Malley forced innocent men through unnecessary retrials after they’d been freed. Isaiah Andrews, Kenny Phillips and Michael Sutton served significant prison time for crimes they didn’t commit. After their convictions were vacated, Mr. O’Malley put them through unnecessary retrials, hoping to send them back to prison. All were acquitted, and jurors expressed confusion about why Mr. O’Malley chose to retry these innocent men. That choice wasted taxpayer dollars, and as Justin Herdman, the former United States Attorney who represented Sutton, said after Phillips’s and Sutton’s acquittals, O’Malley’s actions “call into serious question how wrongful conviction cases are being handled out of the Cuyahoga County Prosecutor’s Office.”
When a wrongfully convicted person applies to the CIU, they trust that this branch of the very prosecutor’s office that wrongly convicted them will do justice and be transparent. They sacrifice some of their constitutional rights and privileges, as the CIU requires.
They do this because they are innocent. If the goal is justice, this collaborative approach gives prosecutors access that they otherwise would not have. Exonerating the innocent and identifying the guilty is a value to society.
However, when a “conviction integrity unit” operates in secret, subject to the will of one person who overrides the recommendations of his own CIU panels after their thorough review, it is not a real CIU. It is just a tool used for the prosecutor’s political gain.
The Quattrone Center for the Fair Administration of Justice’s best practices for CIUs state that CIUs should “encourage an open exchange of information and ideas” among the parties. They stress transparency.
Mr. O’Malley seeks the public’s trust that comes with running a CIU. But his actions demonstrate he wants no one to question or know about the Unit’s inner workings and wants exclusive control over the use of the evidence of innocence it collects.
He wants unbridled access to a wrongfully convicted person while prohibiting that person from learning about what he uncovers – evidence proving their innocence.
Mr. O’Malley’s decision to ‘privatize’ the CIU and further restrict questioning about his decision-making is neither transparent nor cooperative. That is his prerogative, but he cannot continue to hide behind the façade that his “Conviction Integrity Unit” has any integrity.
Timothy Young is the Ohio public defender, has led Ohio’s indigent defense reform efforts and created the Ohio Wrongful Conviction Project. Mark Godsey is director of the Ohio Innocence Project and a professor of law at the University of Cincinnati.