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January 14, 2021 - Herring Creates Conviction Integrity Unit, Expands Efforts to Identify and Overturn Wrongful Convictions

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Commonwealth of Virginia Office of the Attorney General

Mark Herring Attorney General

202 North Ninth Street Richmond, Virginia 23219

 

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~ Conviction Integrity Unit will add resources to better identify and overturn wrongful convictions and to implement new changes to Virginia’s “actual innocence” process ~

RICHMOND —Attorney General Mark R. Herring announced today that he is creating the OAG’s first Conviction Integrity Unit to expand his efforts to identify and overturn wrongful convictions. The Unit will now be a distinct entity with a singular focus on evaluating and investigating claims of wrongful conviction, taking proactive steps to overturn wrongful convictions, and implementing important changes in the law that will finally allow for more wrongly convicted people to pursue their claims in the courts. The Unit will grow to include three full time attorneys and one investigator dedicated to identifying and correcting wrongful convictions.

 

“Our goal as a Commonwealth must always be justice and truth, not simply convictions, or preservation and defense of convictions in defiance of logic, facts, or new evidence,” said Attorney General Herring. “To wrongly convict a person is to deny them untold opportunities and the chance to live their life in freedom and to choose their own path. It is a wrong that can never truly be righted.

 

“In the 2020 legislative session the General Assembly finally took long overdue steps to improve Virginia’s process for identifying and overturning wrongful convictions. With these important changes comes a new opportunity and obligation to ensure the Commonwealth, through its attorney general, is an active partner in the pursuit of justice and truth. For far too long Virginia’s process for securing justice for the wrongfully convicted was hopelessly convoluted, requiring individuals to jump through countless hoops just to get the chance to make their case, and even then they faced a burden of proof so high that it often felt like the system was set up to give the illusion of hope, rather than pursue truth and justice. But now, Virginia has a process that will focus on the heart of the matter: whether someone is actually innocent of the crime for which they were convicted.

 

“When I joined Keith Harward’s petition to have his wrongful conviction overturned in 2015, I said that when the system gets it wrong, when the system fails to deliver justice, we have to say so and we have to fix it. That is why I have created this unit, which reflects an unprecedented commitment to ensuring justice and to righting wrongs whenever they are found. It will be an important tool of accountability and justice, and a safeguard against prosecutorial misconduct, institutional racism and bias, or mistakes that could cost an innocent person their freedom.”

 

The work of the Conviction Integrity Unit is expected to grow in light of important changes to Virginia’s laws around wrongful convictions and the issuance of “writs of actual innocence,” which are orders issued by either the Court of Appeals of Virginia or the Virginia Supreme Court after the court finds that an individual did not actually commit the crime for which they were convicted and that they are actually innocent.

 

The addition of an in-house investigator is a major development that will expand the Conviction Integrity Unit’s ability to follow the facts and independently determine whether a person has been wrongly convicted. Instead of relying on law enforcement agencies who may have been involved in the original investigation, the Unit will now be able to conduct more independent investigations that help get to the truth of someone’s guilt or innocence.

 

Under legislation that the Office of Attorney General worked on in the last legislative session with chief patron House of Delegates Majority Leader Charniele Herring, the General Assembly has expanded the opportunities for wrongfully convicted individuals to pursue their claims, and eliminated many of the unnecessary procedural requirements that too often kept individuals from having their case heard on the merits.

 

“The creation of Virginia’s first statewide Conviction Integrity Unit is a momentous leap forward in the pursuit of justice, and one that was frankly unimaginable in Virginia just a few years ago,” said Majority Leader Charniele Herring. “It shows a true commitment by the Commonwealth and Attorney General Herring to doing justice in all cases, to writing wrongs, and to ensuring that no one is denied their freedom and liberty for a crime they didn’t commit.”

 

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