Los Angeles County District Attorney Jackie Lacey on Monday announced the creation of a new unit devoted to reviewing wrongful conviction claims.
The Conviction Review Unit, funded with nearly $1 million from LA County, will pursue the innocence claims of people imprisoned for serious felonies, if new evidence is discovered.
"Despite our best efforts, the prosecution of cases is not perfect. In a few instances, new evidence is discovered after the fact and, on rare occasions, mistakes are found," Lacey said.
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One of those instances forced Obie Anthony to spend 17 years in prison after being wrongfully convicted of murder in 1994.
Anthony’s attorneys said a key witness lied during testimony. They also said a Los Angeles Times reporter took home bullet casings from the crime scene that were later used to show the shooter who killed Felipe Gonzales couldn’t have been where Anthony and his co-defendant allegedly were.
While the city of Los Angeles agreed to pay him an $8.3 million settlement in April, Anthony said the money will not make up for the years he spent behind bars for a murder he didn't commit.
"We need to be mindful of that type of atmosphere, that type of environment," Anthony said. "Not only does it put individuals like myself in life without the possibility of parole, but it also puts people on death row."
Susan Mellen, grandmother and mother of three, was also imprisoned for 17 years after she was convicted of a murder she didn't commit in 1998.
Judge Mark Arnold, who dismissed the case and ordered her release, noted the Los Angeles County District Attorney concurred on many points of the case, which hinged on the testimony of a woman he called a "habitual liar."
"I told the judge the day I got sentenced that one day God would bring the truth to the light," she said after her release.
After she was released last October, she filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the city of Los Angeles, alleging detectives knowingly used false evidence to convict her, according to attorneys.
The Conviction Review Unit has been in the works for the last two and a half years, and is meant to help people like Anthony and Mellen.
"All prosecutors — and I’ve been a trial prosecutor — want to make sure that the right person pays for the crime," Lacey said. "If we’re talking about newly discovered evidence, that was not available either through DNA, or there was some doubt about a witness who we relied on the past, then we definitely want to make sure that the right person is in prison for that crime."
When new evidence warrants it, a formal investigation will be opened to review details of the case, and the case will be presented to the Conviction Review Committee, who will decide whether they doubt the original conviction.
Lacey said five criteria will govern selection of cases:
- There must be a claim of actual innocence, rather than a claim of self-defense or concerns raised about procedural legal issues.
- There must be newly discovered evidence.
- The claim of innocence must be based on identity.
- The claimant must have always maintained his or her innocence.
- The claim must be brought for a conviction obtained after trial.
Kevin Lynch, who's been with the DA's office for 22 years, will lead the unit. He will be joined by two experienced deputy district attorneys, a senior investigator, and a paralegal.
Almost two dozen units like this have been established across the country, including units in five other California counties.
"My office will not turn away from its duty to look at new credible evidence that suggests a mistake was made," Lacey wrote in a statement. "We will seek the truth without fear to ensure a just result, whether that means letting a conviction stand or freeing a wrongfully convicted person."
City News Service contributed to this report.