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Group doubts intentions of Clark County DA’s new conviction integrity unit

Clark County District Attorney Steve Wolfson won approval this week for a special unit to investigate claims of “actual innocence,” but a nonprofit group dedicated to criminal justice reform excoriated the prosecutor before he made the first hire for the project.

County commissioners have approved more than $300,000 for three new positions — a chief deputy district attorney, an investigator and a paralegal — to “improve the prosecution process.”

Wolfson said he would open his search to lawyers outside his office but also could hire from within, and he expected to have the team in place within three or four months.

“It takes a unique kind of person to fill this position,” he said of the chief deputy spot.

The Las Vegas Review-Journal initially reported in December that Wolfson had been considering a Conviction Integrity Unit, similar to those at prosecutor’s offices across the country.

Since then, attorneys from his office sat down with the Rocky Mountain Innocence Center for a 90-minute meeting. Wolfson thought the discussion went well and said the center “gave very valuable input.”

But on Friday, hours after the top prosecutor issued a statement about funding for the project, the group’s executive director, Marla Kennedy, sent out a critical email, sparking a heated repartee.

“We are very concerned that the Conviction Integrity Unit Mr. Wolfson has announced will be nothing short of a CRINO (conviction review in name only),” Kennedy wrote.

Kennedy, whose group has reviewed cases in Nevada for 15 years, took particular issue with this phrase in Wolfson’s news release: “We stand by all of our convictions.”

The release then adds, “But, if something is brought to our attention, we will look into it.”

Kennedy pointed to 1,791 exonerations across the country.

“We are disappointed Mr. Wolfson believes there have been no wrongful convictions in Clark County,” she said. “Our pleadings (in Nevada) are rarely met with the spirit of cooperation and the pure intent of ensuring justice for the wrongfully convicted.”

Wolfson shot back.

“Tell them thanks for their input, but we won’t be seeking any more input from them again,” he said. “I find it very interesting that they would make these comments before we even roll out the unit and give it a chance to prove itself. The fact they have doubts and concerns are premature and insulting.”

Sen. Aaron Ford, D-Las Vegas, who first approached Wolfson about the idea about two years ago, lauded the district attorney for “taking this issue on and running with it.”

Ford’s cousin, Craig Watkins, created the nation’s first conviction integrity unit while he was top prosecutor in Dallas County, Texas.

“If we’re going to use DNA to implicate,” Ford said, “we should be able to use it to exonerate.”

The unit was created partly in response to revelations of wrongful criminal convictions around the country, but Wolfson said “there isn’t a crisis that is causing this to come into fruition” in Clark County.

The new prosecutor’s position pays $141,176 a year; the investigator’s position pays $93,518; and the paralegal’s position pays $70,008.

Wolfson said the prosecutor will help determine the criteria for reviewing cases.

Clark County Public Defender Phil Kohn said prosecutors have not discussed the project with him, but he “certainly” believes in the concept.

“I have some cases I would very much like them to look at, especially those in which the science has improved from 20 years ago,” he said.

Prosecutors reviewed claims of innocence in the past, but there was no specially trained, independent team dedicated to such cases.

In 2004, Clark County paid $5 million to Roberto Miranda, who spent 14 years in prison for a murder he said he did not commit.

“Only time will tell what kind of CIU will be created in Clark County,” Kennedy said. “For the people of Clark County and the state of Nevada, we hope it is a transparent one that will provide true justice.”

Contact David Ferrara at dferrara@reviewjournal.com or 702-380-1039. Follow @randompoker on Twitter.

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