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LA County's new wrongful conviction unit flooded with hundreds of innocence claims

Los Angeles County District Attorney Jackie Lacey speaks during a news conference on Nov. 13, 2014, in Los Angeles.
Jae C. Hong/AP
Los Angeles County District Attorney Jackie Lacey speaks during a news conference on Nov. 13, 2014, in Los Angeles.

The Los Angeles County District Attorney’s new wrongful conviction unit has been bombarded with cases in the first nine months as 730 people convicted in Los Angeles have come forward to claim they're innocent. 

Of those, D.A. Jackie Lacey told KPCC, at least one case is now being formally investigated, but none has been brought back to court. 

“The LA County District Attorneys Office prosecutes about a third of all criminal cases in California, we’re going to have a high volume of cases to review, we are working as diligently and as hard as we can to quickly get cases reviewed," she said.

So far only about a third of the cases have even had a preliminary review. Attorneys submitting the claims say that's a slow pace. 

"I think the DA's heart is absolutely in the right place, I think the problem has been getting the unit up and going and understanding how these decisions will be made," said Loyola Law Professor Laurie Levenson, founder of the university's Project for the Innocent. 

"On our end, that's a bit frustrating 'cause we have cases that we want resolved today," she said. 

As of this March, 213 cases are ready for review, 42 claims have been rejected, 13 have been assigned to staff for followup, and a couple are under a much more thorough investigation. 

Lacey said she's mindful that people are sitting in prison every day and there could be a person who is wrongfully convicted waiting for help, but asked for patience and cooperation while investigators conduct a diligent review.

The goal of L.A. County’s unit is to investigate credible claims where new, substantial evidence, such as DNA, casts doubt on a conviction of someone still in prison on a serious or violent felony.

“The person has to currently be in custody and has to be a case where they claimed actual innocence from the get go, so we have of course murder cases that fall into that,” Lacey said. “These are serious cases where someone is probably doing life or a substantial amount of state prison time."

Loyola Law submitted two cases last year.

Levenson said one involves an elderly woman who they believe was wrongfully convicted of causing her grandchild’s death. She said the other case is more complex and involves an ongoing investigation.

The unit has also received cases involving sex crime, shaken baby syndrome deaths, robberies, child molestation and family violence.

Ken Lynch, Assistant Head Deputy for the Post-Conviction Litigation and Discovery Unit said they have reviewed claims of various types of evidence that cast doubt on a conviction.

“We’re reviewing types of evidence in which we can obtain DNA from in a variety of cases, we’re looking at cases in which there’s an argument the science has changed and therefore the conviction is no longer valid, specifically in arson cases and shaken baby syndrome cases," he said.

Lynch said they're also looking at cases where circumstantial evidence was used to convict the defendant.

Before the creation of the unit, Lacey said, such cases had little shot of  getting reviewed unless they came to the attention of a law school's innocence project. Now, they're guaranteed a review by experienced prosecutors and trained investigators. 

“It was the right thing to do to create such a unit," she said. Now, she said, she's asking for patience as the unit does its work.