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Clark County DA to start special unit to review convictions

The Clark County district attorney’s office is creating a new unit to examine claims of innocence in light of revelations of wrongful criminal convictions around the country.

District Attorney Steve Wolfson said he plans to form the team within the first three months of 2016.

Sen. Aaron Ford, D-Las Vegas, first approached Wolfson about the idea more than a year ago, and the subject arose again at a conference for prosecutors earlier this year. The unit would be assigned cases in which the appellate process has been exhausted but the defendant continues to claim someone else committed the crime, Wolfson said.

Commending Wolfson for his plans, Ford said he had hoped to pass legislation creating a funding source for conviction review teams as early as 2013 while working on a DNA testing bill.

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, but Ford said “There was no specific problem that I believed was happening in the DA’s office.”

“The problem I’m looking at is a nationwide one,” Ford said. “We don’t want anyone convicted of crimes and in prison who is innocent.”

He noted a “disproportionate number of black and brown people in our penal system.”

Ford’s cousin, Craig Watkins, created the nation’s first conviction integrity unit while he was top prosecutor in Dallas County, Texas. Earlier this year, the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office instituted a conviction review team, joining more than 15 others across the United States.

Ensuring sound convictions “helps everyone,” Ford said. “It’s not something that is purely for minorities. It does help the entire society here in Nevada to ensure that convictions have integrity if we’re taking someone’s liberties away, especially when we’re talking about folks on death row.”

Wolfson said the Clark County project, which he hopes to launch by March, is still in “creation status,” and he has yet to decide if he will seek funding from the county. His office is analyzing similar units elsewhere to determine a model that would fit in Las Vegas.

Prosecutors currently review innocence claims, but “we don’t have a specially trained unit where there’s a level of independence,” Wolfson said.

He declined to point to specific cases that could be eligible for review, but said at least “two or three would be appropriate for the unit I project will be in place … There’s going to be a review process that will be different than we’ve ever had. There will be a new process in place regardless of which model or which avenue we choose to take.”

Marla Kennedy, the executive director of the Rocky Mountain Innocence Center, a nonprofit group that reviews cases in Nevada, Utah and Wyoming, said she was pleased to learn of Wolfson’s decision. Similar units have proved successful across the country, particularly in New York, where prosecutors work closely with groups such as hers.

“But these units only work effectively if everyone involved in post-conviction innocence reform has a seat at the table, our organization, the legal defense community and experienced investigators working alongside the folks in prosecutor’s office,” Kennedy said. “Reforms in Nevada are at the top of our priority list because 62 percent of our cases come out of Nevada. Our hope is that we can work beside DA Wolfson as he develops the CIU and institutes the best practices for this important work.”

Veteran public defender Scott Coffee sees promise in adding another layer to scrutinizing convictions.

“Traditionally, around the country, district attorney’s offices have been slow to respond to innocence claims,” Coffee said. “The fact that the (Clark County) DA’s office is willing to put together something like this is probably a good sign.”

Coffee said an ideal conviction integrity unit would be lead by a lawyer from outside the prosecutor’s office, and worth the added cost.

“If you believe in justice, you absolutely have to believe this is money well spent,” Coffee said. “Even if we get it right 95 percent of the time, 5 percent of the time we don’t, and that 5 percent is critical. Is it worth making sure we get it right? Absolutely. The sooner you correct these things, the less financial obligation there is down the line.”

Contact reporter David Ferrara at dferrara@reviewjournal.com or 702-380-1039. Find him on Twitter: @randompoker

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