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Prosecutors start conviction review units

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) — Death row and life sentence inmates who were sentenced in Jefferson County could get a second look at their cases under a new initiative aimed at reviewing possible wrongful convictions. reports that Jefferson County District Attorney Danny Carr and Jefferson County Bessemer Cutoff District Attorney Lynneice Washington are launching conviction review units to look at death penalty and life sentence cases where there may be evidence of innocence.

“It is often said that one innocent person behind bars is one too many, and there began a growing trend in the number of people identified as wrongfully convicted, but had already lost many years of their life in prison, separated from family and snatched of their dignity and hope,’’ Washington told the news organization.

“As prosecutors, we are ministers of justice. We seek justice and we must do justice at all time.’′

The Conviction Integrity Unit (Bessemer Division) and the Conviction Review Unit (Birmingham Division) are the first of their kind in Jefferson County and in Alabama, the news site reported. Both units are supported by the Innocence Project in New York, Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery and fellow CIUs in various states.

“It is important that applicants understand that both offices are reviewing only cases based upon new, credible evidence with an assertion of absolute innocence,” Washington said. “This means that the person convicted must possess no criminal responsibility for the crime in which he or she was convicted.”

The units will begin their work in January.

An investigator, a seasoned assistant district attorney and interns will do the intake of the applications to weed out those who don’t fit the criteria to have their cases reviewed. Once a case is deemed to fall within the guidelines for consideration, assistant district attorneys will review the case and ultimately present it to Washington or Carr for the final decision. They will carefully consider whether a case merits the time and manpower it will take to re-open.

Currently there are 170 people on Alabama’s Death Row, with a couple dozen of those sentenced out of Jefferson County’s two prosecutorial divisions. Hundreds more have been sentenced to life or life without parole for violent crimes.

Washington said she doesn’t yet know the scope of wrongful convictions out of Jefferson County. “It’s hard to say, we do live in the South,’′ she said. “The fact is that technology has advanced, DNA has been enhanced. There’s so much now that we know that we didn’t know several years ago.”

“This is not meant to give police officers a black eye or insult them. Knowledge is power. The investigative techniques that were good then may have been improved now and we can establish best practices going forward,” she said. “It’s just to correct some wrongs that have been made.”

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