Minnesota's first statewide initiative dedicated to reversing wrongful convictions started taking applications Tuesday, marking the latest step by Attorney General Keith Ellison to make his office a major player in criminal justice reform.
Ellison's new conviction review unit is only the seventh statewide initiative in the country set up to identify and remedy wrongful convictions. It also will regularly propose reforms to the state's criminal justice system.
"I think the state is going through a moment now where it's coming to terms with institutional racism, and if you don't think that plays out in the criminal justice system in terms of wrongful convictions, you're a little naive," said Carrie Sperling, a new assistant attorney general hired to lead the conviction review unit.
"I think we will have a little bit of a reckoning to do with how does that play out in decision-making about who gets tried, what sentences they get and is the trial a fair one."
Sperling, who comes from the University of Wisconsin Law School, previously has worked on death penalty appeals in Texas as a director of the American Civil Liberties Union. She also was the first director of the Arizona Justice Project at Arizona State University.
Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman and Ramsey County Attorney John Choi serve on the conviction review unit's advisory board, which also includes community activists, defense attorneys and former Minnesota Supreme Court Chief Justice Paul Anderson. On Tuesday, Freeman pledged to supply Ellison's initiative with two law clerks to help review cases.
The unit is a joint project of Ellison's office and the Great North Innocence Project, and it is funded by a roughly $300,000 U.S. Department of Justice grant that spans two years. The Great North Innocence Project can reapply for federal funds, and an Attorney General's Office spokesman said the office will seek more funds from the Legislature.
"This is a step toward re-establishing respect for law enforcement," said Mark Osler, a University of St. Thomas law professor who is on the conviction review unit's board. "Because we respect things that have integrity, and part of integrity is the willingness to acknowledge when you've made a mistake, there is going to be, from here forward, a new way to gain that integrity."
Sperling is the only staff member dedicated to the conviction review unit but she will be able to rely on secretaries and paralegals. The office also is developing a clinic for law school students to help.
Because of limited staffing early on, the unit will prioritize felony cases no longer pending on appeal and cases filed by people in custody. Special attention will be given to cases where convictions were based on eyewitness identification, an alleged false or coerced conviction and witness testimony that has been recanted as false or coerced.
People can apply to have their cases reviewed by requesting an application from Ellison's office. Applications also will be available at Department of Corrections facilities.
Ellison said that he would like to see the unit expand to respond to unjust sentencing in future years.
"We have to let people know that we're going to be active and busy," Ellison said. "We're not going to be able to deliver wanted outcomes for everyone that wants them but what we will be able to do is … give people a fresh look, fresh eyes. I do believe there will be some people who one day will be free because of the work that Carrie is going to lead for us."
The unit will only review the cases of people who have been convicted of a felony prosecuted by the state. Applicants must present a "plausible claim" that they were wrongfully convicted and offer potential leads to reliable evidence to back up the claim.
Ellison will have final say on how to respond to any findings and recommendations made after investigations. Remedies include seeking a dismissal or a reduced sentence, filing a joint application for post-conviction relief, advocating for early release or supporting clemency or a pardon.
The unit also plans to "regularly report its case review numbers to the public," according to a charter that Ellison described as one of the most expansive in the country.
Elizer Darris, co-director of the Minnesota Freedom Fund and a member of the unit's advisory board, implored anyone debating whether to submit an application to take the new initiative up on its offer. He cited the involvement of community activists, faith leaders and defense attorneys working with law enforcement to establish the statewide plan.
"We are part of this," said Darris, who was formerly incarcerated himself. "We are here. We are not spectators."
According to the National Registry of Exonerations, there have been more than 2,800 exonerations around the country, spurring a movement nationwide to establish more offices.
Laura Nirider, co-director of the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern Pritzker School of Law in Chicago, said Minnesota's conviction review unit is the 86th in the country but just the seventh to operate statewide. Conviction reviews have been responsible for more than 500 exonerations, she said.
Ellison and Sperling are trying to manage expectations for how soon the new unit can find and resolve wrongful convictions in the state.
"I do think we will get some people exonerated — I don't know when," Ellison said. "That's not the test of whether or not this is a good program or not. The test is whether or not people feel like there's someone they can go to who honestly and in good faith will review their case where there are credible claims of innocence."
Stephen Montemayor • 612-673-1755