First federal unit set up to correct wrongful convictions

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The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Washington has set up the first federal unit to identify and investigate cases that ended in wrongful convictions, Reuters reports.

“This new unit will work to uncover historical injustices and to make sure that we are doing everything in our power to prevent such tragedies in the future,” U.S. Attorney Ronald C. Machen Jr. told The Washington Post before the formal announcement on Friday.

The creation of the Conviction Integrity Unit came after the U.S. Attorney’s Office spent four years reviewing more than 2,000 cases involving FBI analysis of fiber and hair evidence. The review has already garnered a handful of exonerations for individuals convicted of crimes committed in the 1980s.

Last week, Henry Lee McCollum, 50, and Leon Brown, 46, were declared innocent after serving thirty years for the 1983 rape and murder of an 11-year-old girl in North Carolina. McCollum, who was on death row, and Brown, who was serving a life sentence, were freed after DNA evidence linked another man to the crime, the New York Times reports.

In July, Kevin Martin, 50, who was convicted of the 1982 killing of a woman in Washington D.C. was exonerated based on DNA evidence. The U.S. Attorney’s Office challenged original forensic evidence of hair that linked Martin to the crime, according to the Washington Post.

The first of the exonerations from the U.S. Attorney’s reevaluation and new DNA evidence came in 2009 for Donald Gates. Gates was convicted of the 1981 rape and murder of a Georgetown University student based in part on hair evidence.

The results of the U.S. Attorney’s Office review are being shared with the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project, a nonprofit dedicated to correcting and preventing wrongful convictions in D.C., Maryland and Virginia. The organization is located at George Washington University Law School in Washington, D.C.

All four men had served well beyond the average sentence typical of DNA exonerees, according to the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project, which notes the average sentence served is 13.6 years.

One of the most publicized cases of wrongful conviction and exoneration in recent years is the case of Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana Jr. and Kharey Wise, otherwise known as the Central Park Five, in 2002. The five black and Latino men were convicted as youths of the beating and raping of a female jogger in Central Park in 1989.

On Sept. 5, the men were awarded $41 million in a settlement, roughly $1 million for each year of their imprisonment.

The federal government, 29 states and the District of Columbia have enacted laws to award monetary compensation to people who have been exonerated, according to Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project. 

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