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Rollins: Miscarriages of Justice Go Beyond A 'Few Bad Apples'

To reduce the number of miscarriages in the justice system, the idea that their cause is a "few bad apples" should be abandoned, says U.S. Attorney Rachael Rollins of Massachusetts, former chief prosecutor in Boston's Suffolk County.

Leniency toward wrongdoers can help allow misconduct to grow, Rollins says. The lack of people who are trained and empowered to hold justice system contributes to the level of wrongdoing in the profession, she says.

A shortage of good oversight allows people to give the problem short shrift Rollins says. "We tell ourselves what's done is done. Or that that's somebody else's bad decision, not ours," she told a symposium on New Strategies for Wrongful Convictions hosted by Arizona State University.

Rollins was the first woman of color to be elected a district attorney in Massachusetts. She served as the District Attorney for three years before being appointed by President Biden as the top federal prosecutor in the state.

Rollins' record as a state prosecutor included agreeing to motions to vacate wrongful convictions, and seeking sentence reductions for people she believed had been sentenced too harshly. During her tenure as the District Attorney, Rollins obtained relief from miscarriages of justice for 17 individuals in which the prisoners served a total of more than 500 years behind bars.

Rollins said that it's common for people to use their profession as a shield against responsibility and affirmative duty to provide proper justice. Stepping in and having to take corrective action, Rollins said, makes people uncomfortable.

"We hide behind our uniforms, our credentials, our fancy degrees, our commitment to precedent and norms and process all the while what we are really doing is crowd control," she said.

She mentioned that prosecutors are held to a different ethical standard and have the responsibility to recognize injustice and ensure that proper justice is followed in every proceeding.

"That includes looking back at past convictions and sentences and taking every step to remedy unlawful and unconstitutional and unethical actions and to prevent them from ever happening again," Rollins said.

According to Rollins, this was the reason she created Suffolk County's first in-the-nation integrity bureau. She intentionally did not name it conviction integrity.

The integrity review bureau had four pillars: conviction integrity, sentence integrity, case integrity, and lastly, LEAD (law enforcement automatic discovery database).

The conviction integrity process reviews cases brought by the defense. Sentence integrity examines whether some sentences produced unjust results. Case integrity is a critical appraisal of sentinel events that happened in trials during real-time, which helped bring awareness to issues without having to wait years for a response to a motion for a new trial. LEAD is led by institutional review boards and serves as an audit function.

After the launch of the integrity bureau, Rollins received over 100 requests for review. While many case screenings found no reason for further review, at least 15 cases were discovered in which convictions were "...secured with misconduct, unconstitutional and unethical actions...".

Rollins said as a minister of justice her job is to make sure the process is clean, people receive fair trials, have access to a jury of peers, and make sure that evidence is not being withheld.

Rollins said that in each circumstance, "there was a person who spent decades incarcerated for a crime they didn't commit, or as a result of a trial that was fundamentally flawed."

Often the focus in discussing miscarriages of justice is on the defendant. Rollins reminded listeners that the families of the victim are traumatized during and after the conviction.

"Those families felt betrayed and traumatized," she said. "They suffered grievously. A miscarriage of justice harms everyone involved not just the defendant who did not receive due process or who was wrongfully convicted, but also victims and their families."

Rollins wants corruption to be recognized and called out, whether it involves falsifying drug tests, hiding evidence or refusing to turn it over to the defense, or attempting to build a biased jury.

"When we look the other way, when we lack the moral courage to confront injustice done by others who wear our uniforms, who carry our credentials, or who look like us, we perpetuate and compound the initial injustice," Rollins said.

As U.S. attorney, Rollins has made efforts to change the office but said that she lacks the full autonomy she had when she was District Attorney. She is proud of requiring every assisted U.S. Attorney to visit a carceral facility.


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