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District Attorney Boudin Announces Formation of Post-Conviction Unit and Innocence Commission

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Rachel Marshall / (415) 416-4468 / Rachel.Marshall@sfgov.org

San Francisco, CA — Today, San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin announced the launch of a Post-Conviction Unit as part of the District Attorney’s Office, as well as the formation of an Innocence Commission.  The formation of the Post-Conviction Unit fulfills a major campaign promise of District Attorney Boudin. A six-member, all volunteer Innocence Commission will support the work of the Post-Conviction Unit by reviewing potential wrongful convictions cases and making findings regarding innocence claims, which it will present to District Attorney Boudin.  The Innocence Commission will include an academic, a retired judge, a medical expert, an attorney from the District Attorney’s Office, a public defender from the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office, and the Executive Director of the Northern California Innocence Project.

“I am proud that we have not only fulfilled one of my most significant campaign promises in establishing our Post-Conviction Unit, but that we are also able to announce an Innocence Commission to support and strengthen the Unit’s work,” said District Attorney Boudin.  “Promoting justice in our legal system requires us not only to move forward but also to look backwards. Wrongful convictions cause concentric circles of harm: to the wrongfully convicted, to the crime victims who were told a false story and re-traumatized, to the jurors who unwittingly participated in the injustice, and to the integrity of the system as a whole.  When someone has been wrongly convicted, it is incumbent upon prosecutors to correct that injustice.”

Wrongful convictions are a significant problem in the United States. According to the National Registry of Exonerations, more than 2,600 people across the nation have been exonerated for crimes they did not commit. In California, there have been more than 200 known wrongful convictions since the National Registry of Exonerations began tracking them in the late 1980s.  Wrongful convictions have cost innocent people in California to lose a total of 1,908 years of their lives. These same wrongful convictions have cost taxpayers an estimated $137 million even as the real perpetrators of crime avoided consequences for their actions and victims were denied justice.

The Innocence Commission’s Structure 

The Innocence Commission will be tasked with evaluating cases where an incarcerated person asserts that they were wrongfully convicted.  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 will prepare a findings of fact and conclusions of law memorandum that will serve as the basis to seek to vacate the conviction.  Although the District Attorney retains the final decision-making power on each case, he will afford great weight to the determination of the Commission.

The Innocence Commission will be led by Professor Lara Bazelon, Director of the Criminal & Juvenile Justice and Racial Justice Clinics at University of San Francisco Law School.  Also serving on the Commission are the Honorable Judge LaDoris Cordell (Ret.); medical expert Dr. George Woods; Executive Director of the Northern California Innocence Project Linda Starr; San Francisco Managing District Attorney Arcelia Hurtado; and San Francisco Deputy Public Defender Jacque Wilson.  The Commission members are volunteering their time to serve on the Commission. 

The Post-Conviction Unit’s Structure

The Innocence Commission will support the work of the District Attorney’s Office’s newly launched Post-Conviction Unit, which, among other work, reviews cases in which the sentences imposed may be excessive or where the convictions may otherwise be legally questionable.  That Unit carefully considers many factors, including a defendant’s prison conduct, the input of the victim(s) in the case, and a defendant’s reentry plans, in determining whether to move to resentence someone.  When coming across cases where a conviction appears to have been wrongful, the Post-Conviction Unit will refer cases to the Innocence Commission, which will also review cases referred to it by other methods and sources.

Featured Members of the Innocence Commission 

Professor Bazelon, who will chair the Innocence Commission, has extensive experience litigating, researching, and writing about wrongful conviction cases.  She previously served as the director of the Loyola Law School Project for the Innocent, during which time she was lead counsel in a wrongful conviction case that led to the 2013 exoneration of Kash Delano Register, who spent 34 years in prison for a murder he did not commit. That experience led Professor Bazelon to write the book “Rectify: The Power of Restorative Justice After Wrongful Conviction.” 

“It is thrilling to see Chesa Boudin deliver on his campaign promise to establish an Innocence Commission to remedy wrongful convictions, which will serve as a model for district attorney offices across the country,” Professor Bazelon noted.  “That I get to be part of this important work is a dream come true.”

Also serving on the Innocence Commission is Judge LaDoris Hazzard Cordell (Ret.), the former Assistant Dean for Student Affairs at Stanford Law School.  In 1982, Governor Jerry Brown appointed her to the Municipal Court of Santa Clara County, and in 1988, Judge Cordell was elected to the Superior Court of Santa Clara County, making her the first African American woman to sit on the Superior Court in northern California.  She retired from the bench to become Vice Provost & Special Counselor to the President for Campus Relations at Stanford University in 2001 through 2009. In 2003, she was elected, after a grassroots campaign, to the Palo Alto City Council.  Judge Cordell then served as Independent Police Auditor for the City of San Jose for five years, during which time the office gained national prominence.  In 2016, Judge Cordell chaired a Blue-Ribbon Commission in Santa Clara County that investigated the jails in the aftermath of the murder of an incarcerated person by guards; she also served on a Blue Ribbon Panel that evaluated the culture of the San Francisco Police Department after racist and sexist text messages surfaced. 

“I have dedicated my career to improving the fairness of our justice system.  I am looking forward to serving on the Innocence Commission, which will play a critical role in bolstering the integrity of our legal system by ensuring that wrongful convictions can be identified and reversed,” said Judge Cordell.  “I commend District Attorney Boudin’s commitment to advancing justice in our legal system.”

Renowned medical expert Dr. George Woods is also serving on the Innocence Commission.  Dr. Woods is a physician licensed in multiple states and specializes in neuropsychiatry.  He has been a lecturer at Berkeley Law – University of California, teaching Mental Health and the Law for the past seven years.  Dr. Woods was recently reelected for his second terms as the President of the International Academy of Law and Mental Health. Dr. Woods was also previously the Co-Chairperson of the Challenging Behaviors Special Interest Research Group of the International Association for the Specialized Study of Developmental Disorders and was Associate Editor of the Journal of Policy and Practice in Developmental Disabilities. 

Dr. Woods is a Life Fellow of the American Psychiatric Association, a member of the American Psychological Association, the International Neuropsychological Society, and the American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities.  Dr. Woods is Senior Consultant for Crestwood Behavioral Health and a Founding Partner in JohnsonWoodsGroup, focused on advising startup companies and institutions on best neuropsychiatric practices that may be relevant to business.  Dr. Woods is also on the Advisory Board of Roots Medical Clinic, a multipurpose provider of medical, pediatric, and behavioral services for community and post incarceration minority populations in Oakland, California. Additionally, Dr. Woods sits on the Governing Board of the Stanford University Health Alliance(MSSP), Accountable Care Organization, LLC. Dr. Woods has written about the forensic assessment of neurodevelopmental disorders, race and cognition, cognitive impairment in the elderly, fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, trauma, and financial deception in elderly populations, among other topics.

“I am extremely proud to be part of District Attorney Boudin’s cutting edge endeavor, combining science, justice, and the collaborative inquiry for the truth,” Dr. Woods said of his role on the Innocence Commission. 

Grant-Funded Partnership with USF Law School

The Innocence Commission as well as the Post-Conviction Unit will each be assisted by a dedicated, full-time staff attorney, each of whom will work under Professor Bazelon and University of San Francisco Law School’s Racial Justice Clinic.  Each of the staff attorney positions is funded by donor grants including a grant from Elizabeth Zitrin, Past President and Senior Advisor of the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty and Vice Chair of the Board of Directors of Witness to Innocence.

The partnership of the Innocence Commission and the Post-Conviction Unit with the Racial Justice Clinic is an apt one.  Wrongful convictions especially harm communities of color and the Black community in particular.  According to a new report by the National Registry of Exonerations, Black people constitute approximately 13% of the American population, but represent 49% of the exonerations in the United States. The Registry’s 2017 report indicated that Black people are seven times more likely to be wrongfully convicted of murder, and twelve times more likely to be wrongfully convicted of drug possession than white people. 

Praise for the Launches 

The formation of these two entities to protect the wrongfully convicted has great significance to those impacted directly by wrongful convictions.  Lionel Rubulcava served 17 years for a crime for which he was ultimately exonerated through a collaboration with the Northern California Innocence Project and the Santa Clara District Attorney’s Office.  Upon learning of District Attorney Boudin’s Post-Conviction Unit and the Innocence Commission, he expressed hope.  “It’s a great thing when someone, like me, who has been wrongfully convicted is given a process to be exonerated.”

Legal advocates for the wrongfully convicted heralded the creation of the Post-Conviction Unit and the Innocence Commission.  “I am thrilled that San Francisco has joined the ranks of a growing number of DA’s offices around the country who review claims of wrongful convictions,” said Steven A. Drizin, Co-Legal Director of Northwestern Pritzker School of Law’s Center on Wrongful Convictions.  “Over the past two years, the best run conviction integrity units have been engines of exonerations, helping to secure over 100 exonerations.  Given the balanced make-up of the Innocent Commission and with Professor Bazelon at the helm, I have no doubt that this Unit will soon be ferreting out many wrongful convictions.”

Drizin added that he is just as excited by District Attorney Boudin’s decision to direct his Post-Conviction Unit to review cases where defendants’ sentences were excessive.  “In broadening the definition of “wrongful convictions” to include “wrongful sentences,” the San Francisco District Attorney’s Office will not only exonerate the innocent but it has the potential to make a dent in California’s mass incarceration problem.”