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Conviction Review Units Have Figured In 670 Exonerations

A Florida man who served more than 34 years of a 400-year sentence for an armed robbery conviction was released Wednesday after prosecutors said he was likely misidentified.

The release of Sidney Holmes, 57, came less than a week after a New York man, Sheldon Thomas, was freed after 18 years for a wrongful murder conviction.

The week before Thomas' release, Maurice Hastings was declared innocent in California after nearly 40 years in prison.

All three men were exonerated after conviction review units (CRUs) in local prosecutors' offices reinvestigated their cases. These units, called conviction integrity units, have grown in recent years Experts say their impact could stretch beyond freeing the wrongfully incarcerated, USA Today reports.

Such units aim "to ientify cases in the past that need to be revisited," said Marissa Bluestine of the Quattrone Center for the Fair Administration of Justice at the University of Pennsylvania Law School. "But it's also learning from that error to prevent those errors from happening in the future."

CRUs conduct extrajudicial investigations into past convictions to determine if they should be vacated because the person who was convicted is innocent or because the process of convicting them was flawed.

Bluestine said some CRUs also conduct audits of cases involving bad actors and issue case corrections, where prosecutors determine a person was convicted of a more serious crime than they should have been and adjust sentencing.

Some units have multiple attorneys, investigators and support staff. Others are essentially "one-man or one-woman shows," said Jessica Weinstock Parede of the National Registry of Exonerations.

"My experience and my visceral impression based on years of talking to these units is several of them could use a lot more help and if there were more resources and more funding would be bigger and would be producing more," she said.

The first CRUs emerged in the late 2000s and there are now more than 115 in the more than 2,500 prosecutor's offices, according to Bluestine.

"It's been a leapfrog forward, but there's still quite a ways to go to getting it a little bit more ubiquitous throughout the system," she said. "I think people are starting to demand it more and request it more."

CRUs have been involved in more than 670 of the country's over 3,280 exonerations, according to the National Registry of Exonerations. The most common contributing factors leading that lead to an exoneration are official misconduct, perjury or false accusation, false or misleading forensic evidence, false confession, mistaken witness identification and inadequate legal help.

More than half of the 96 CRUs listed on the registry's website have not produced an exoneration. Bluestine said older units in large jurisdictions not having an exoneration could be a cause for concern, but generally it is a reflection of how long and challenging reinvestigations can be.


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