This article originally appeared in the Daily Camera
“Getting it off the ground is a top priority for me,” Michael Dougherty said
The Boulder District Attorney’s Office is partnering with the Boulder public defender’s office, the defense bar and the University of Colorado’s Korey Wise Innocence Project to create a conviction integrity unit that would examine cases in which defendants claim they were wrongfully convicted.
New Boulder District Attorney Michael Dougherty first moved to Colorado to head the Colorado DNA Justice Review Project, part of the Colorado Attorney General’s Office that examined possible wrongful convictions statewide.
While current Attorney General Cynthia Coffman did away with the program, Dougherty said a unit that would examine possible wrongful convictions was a top priority for him once he took office in Boulder County.
“A prosecutor’s mission is to do justice in every single case, and not to rack up convictions like notches in a gun belt,” he said. “If there is reason to believe someone is wrongfully convicted, prosecutors should have an open mind and a process to examine those cases.”
Dougherty said that he and Deputy District Attorneys Fred Johnson and Mark Rimaldi will be heading up the prosecutor’s side of things on the unit to begin with, but he said a lot of people in the office expressed interest in the unit when he announced it.
“That’s one thing I’m excited about for the future of the office as we look to not only maintain the excellence (former Boulder DA) Stan Garnett has established, but also build upon it,” he said. “Getting it off the ground is a top priority for me.”
But Dougherty said he knows that in order for the unit to succeed, it needed to be a collaborative effort, so he said defense attorneys will be also working on the unit. Megan Ring with the Boulder public defender’s office said she was excited to hear Dougherty make the unit a priority just a few weeks after being appointed to replace Garnett.
“As a public defender, when you hear about the district attorney saying this is part of their mission, I just think that sends a message about understanding prosecutorial discretion,” she said. “Winning is not important; justice is important.”
While the group is still in its early stages and a process for selecting cases and then reviewing those cases has not been established, Ring said she hopes the unit will not only examine cases where a wrongful conviction can be overturned on new DNA or a confession, but also cases where a person was convicted of first-degree murder instead of second-degree murder or cases of self-defense.
“My hope is this doesn’t just include what I would describe as ‘actual innocence,’ but might also be able to include situations where people got convicted of something they shouldn’t have gotten convincted of,” she said.
CU Law Professor Kristy Martinez, program director of CU’s Korey Wise Innocence Project, said that wrongful convictions are an inevitable result of human error in the justice system.
“There are lots of factors, everything from faulty science, false identification, incentivized testimony,” Martinez said. “All of these are products of human frailty.”
She added: “No place is immune. Colorado has people incarcerated right now who are wrongfully convicted. We absoultely need to look at how we’re doing.”
Dougherty said he believes this unit would be the first of its kind in Colorado run out of a district attorney’s office, so he said the next step is researching other innocence projects to develop a protocol the unit would follow.
“I want it to be a joint effort, so we’re going to have to sit down and set the parameters in terms of what cases we accept and review and what process we use with the review,” he said. “I’m really confident we’re getting off to a strong start.”
Martinez, for one, said she is looking forward to it.
“If done well and responsibly, this can be a really interesting collaboration that brings about just results,” she said.