by Bill Barton
Before the murder charge against him was finally dropped, Richard Phillips had the decidedly dubious distinction of being locked up longer than any other eventually exonerated prisoner—he was incarcerated for 45 years, convicted of a crime he did not commit.
According to a report from the National Registry of Exonerations (“NRE”), Phillips was one of the 151 individuals exonerated in 2018. The report cited “professional exonerators”: innocence organizations, independent or law school-affiliated nongovernmental groups, and Conviction Integrity Units (“CIU”s) formed within prosecutors’ offices. The Wayne County CIU, started in 2018 by prosecutor Kym Worthy, worked in concert with one of those innocence organizations and within months formally dismissed the case against Phillips.
When announcing the exoneration of Phillips, Worthy apologized. “The system failed him,” she said. “Nothing that I can say will bring back years of his life spent in prison. Justice is truly being served today.”
The Wayne County CIU is part of a national trend noted by the NRE. There are now 45 across the country, with eight new units coming into existence in 2018 alone.
The records of these units vary. “Where Wayne County had tremendous success in its first year—and is on track to surpass that first-year total—the registry report describes a number of CIUs that have been in operation for at least five years and have yet to produce a single exoneration,” according to The Intercept’s coverage of the issue. “[T]he report argues that the structure of a CIU has a direct correlation to its success, including whether the unit has at least one full-time attorney assigned to it. Of 14 units formed prior to 2018 that lack a full-time attorney, just six have reported an exoneration; 19 of the 22 CIUs founded before 2018 that have a full-time attorney have been involved in at least one exoneration.”
The attorneys general of Michigan and New Jersey have recently announced the formation of statewide CIUs.
Prosecutor Valerie Newman of Detroit’s CIU told the website that while “anyone would feel bad” convicting an innocent individual, “a good prosecutor should be thinking about ‘Is there something else? Is there something I could have done so that this wouldn’t have happened?’”
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