California to review cases for possible wrongful convictions

California’s justice department will soon begin reviewing criminal cases for possible wrongful convictions, searching for ‘evidence of significant integrity issues’ that could lead to resentences, Attorney General Rob Bonta announced Friday.

Bonta said the California Department of Justice will create a Post-Conviction Justice Unit with ‘broad discretion’ to investigate wrongful or improper convictions. He said the unit will partner with local district attorneys, many of whom are already doing similar work.

‘We’re embracing our duty to seek justice, not to blindly seek convictions and to make sure that convictions are just,’ Bonta said.

State and local prosecutors across the country have established internal review units to evaluate this evidence, including Minnesota and New York. In California, prosecutors in Contra Costa and Sacramento counties have similar units.

Prosecutors have historically not gone out of their way to overturn convictions secured by their offices. But technological advances in DNA testing and other forensic evidence have brought forward lots of new evidence on old cases, raising questions about the convictions.

In San Francisco, the district attorney’s Innocence Commission spent 18 months investigating the conviction of Joaquin Ciria, who was sentenced in 1990 to life in prison for the shooting death of Felix Bastarrica. A judge overturned Ciria’s conviction last year after the district attorney’s office found new witnesses and evidence of ‘a cascade of errors’ in how the case was handled.

Bonta said he will hire two people and task them with creating formal rules about reviewing past cases. These can be cases handled by the state Department of Justice or where the department is handling the case on appeal. He said the unit will pay particular attention to cases in counties where local prosecutors do not have a ‘conviction integrity unit.’

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