NEW YORK, June 21 (Reuters) - Since 2010, when Manhattan
District Attorney Cyrus Vance created a unit tasked with
preventing wrongful convictions, his office has received 118
post-conviction claims of innocence for possible review.
And while the program has resulted in a handful of vacated
convictions, it also has informed the way that his office
approaches every prosecution, he said during a speech delivered
at the New York City Bar Association on Wednesday night.
"The very process of examining our procedures, of trying to
articulate and to synthesize our best thinking . . . has been
critical to the evolution of the conscience and culture of our
office," he said. "It is now part of the way in which we
transmit our values to new prosecutors in our office."
In particular, Vance said, the program has reinforced his
office's commitment to pursuing cases only when prosecutors are
convinced beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant is
This standard exceeds the requirements of both state and
national ethics rules, which permit prosecutors to move forward
with cases if probable cause exists and rely on the jury to make
a final determination.
"Put simply, if we are not convinced beyond a reasonable
doubt that the defendant is guilty, how do we go into court and
ask a jury of twelve to find him guilty?" he said.
That approach was on display last summer, he said, when he
dismissed sexual assault charges against former International
Monetary Fund chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn after having doubts
about the credibility of his accuser, a hotel maid at the
Sofitel Hotel in Manhattan.
The Conviction Integrity Unit, which is headed by Assistant
District Attorney Bonnie Sard, has two major components, Vance
On the "front end," assistant district attorneys apply
certain guidelines to ensure that innocent people are not
prosecuted. Those best practices were designed in consultation
with a group of outside experts, including Barry Scheck of the
They include a detailed analysis of eyewitness accounts,
additional training for young prosecutors and enhanced review of
the disclosure of exculpatory evidence, Vance said. In addition,
complex or major cases are often discussed at "round tables" of
senior assistant district attorneys.
On the "back end," the unit examines claims of innocence
raised for defendants that already have been convicted.
That process, Vance said, forces the office to confront
questions without easy answers, such as how much evidence should
be required to vacate a conviction and whether a guilty plea
should preclude re-examination.
One surprising conclusion after two years is that DNA
evidence has not resolved a single claim of innocence, Vance
Without dispositive scientific evidence, the office must
consider how to weigh a jury's verdict. Vance said the unit
would vacate a conviction despite a guilty verdict if
prosecutors discovered new evidence or a flaw the jury could not
have been aware of.
He said the unit is "strongly disinclined," however, to
overrule a jury in the absence of new evidence, even if
prosecutors conclude they likely would have rendered a different
"When we exercise our power, it has to be done responsibly
and, I believe, with a sense of humility," he said. "And that
may require us to dismiss charges, no matter the public outrage
and promise to proceed."
(Reporting by Joseph Ax)
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