AURORA | Convicted felons in the 18th Judicial District who believe they are innocent now have a new method of potential recourse.
The 18th Judicial District Attorney’s office Monday announced the launch of a new investigations unit that will review cases in which convicts have claimed innocence.
The newly formed “conviction review unit” will comprise former prosecutors, judges, police investigators and defense attorneys, who will analyze and potentially re-investigate cases in which people found guilty at trial believe they were wrongfully convicted.
Nationally, the National Registry of Exonerations reports there have been 2,363 exonerations across the country of prisoners believed to be wrongfully convicted since 1989. In Colorado, the center reports there have been eight such cases in those years.
Famously, Clarence Moses-EL, 62, was imprisoned in Colorado for nearly 30 years for a 1987 Denver sexual assault charge. DNA and other evidence exonerated him, and he was awarded almost $2 million in a settlement with the state.
The group of volunteer legal workers will report to a coordinator for the unit from the district attorney’s office, who will then report to George Brauchler, district attorney for the 18th Judicial District.
Rich Orman, senior chief deputy district attorney in the 18th Judicial District, will serve as the unit coordinator, Brauchler said.
Following a possible re-investigation process, members of the unit will then vote on whether they believe claims meet the threshold of validity.
The group will only review claims of innocence from offenders who are either incarcerated or under community supervision, and will not accept claims centered on “legal issues” such as procedural hiccups or rulings, “unless there was an obvious material error,” according to a memo from Brauchler’s office.
The unit will not review re-sentencing requests.
“While we have no evidence that these cases exist in our jurisdiction, I know that the criminal justice system was created, and is run by, human beings,” Brauchler said in a statement. “And like anything created and run by human beings, the criminal justice system is capable of making mistakes. If there is actual, real evidence that a convicted defendant did not commit the crime for which he or she is incarcerated, there is now a vehicle to examine those claims of innocence.”
Brauchler will maintain ultimate discretion over which cases are determined to be valid claims of innocence, as well as what potential recourse to take. That could include a post-conviction motion filed in court, according to Brauchler’s memo. A judge would then be able to change or vacate the conviction.
If a valid claim is made, members of the unit will be able to review all prior case information. New interviews and DNA evidence may also be investigated.
Despite being critical of recent clemency orders issued by former Gov. John Hickenlooper, Brauchler said the new unit is not a response to any particular case or political maneuver.
“I’m still extremely frustrated by (several of Hickenlooper’s clemency orders), but this isn’t so much a response to or a reflection of that,” Brauchler said. “My hope is there are no legitimate cases like this, but even if there’s the chance of just one, aren’t we obligated morally, ethically to have a system in place that can address even just that one? I think the answer’s yes.”
Brauchler said concrete plans were put in place for the unit in mid-December.
Brauchler said Orman is already accepting applications for cases to review. He said volunteers comprising the unit should be selected by the end of March, but could be chosen sooner.
Brauchler said the volume of initial requests for review will dictate how many people are chosen to volunteer on the panel.
People who wish to apply for review can fill out a form on the district attorney’s website.
Interested parties can also send questions via email to [email protected]