by Jayson Hawkins
On April 20, 2022, Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg announced the formation of a Post-Conviction Justice Unit (“PCJU”) to review questionable convictions in Manhattan. The announcement included not only the parameters for filing a petition for review but also a clear statement of intention by the Manhattan DA’s office to take the examinations seriously.
“It’s the height of injustice if you have a wrongful prosecution,” Bragg said. “Often lost in the mix is, if you’ve committed the wrong person, there’s someone else out there who’s still doing harm.”
Bragg’s office has been part of the recent history of high-profile exonerations. These include the Central Park jogger case, which saw five men convicted of sexual assault in the 1980s only to be cleared by DNA evidence in 2022. Cases like this have led to the formation of Conviction Integrity Units (“CIUs”) across the country as the number of exonerations have steadily increased.
Manhattan, however, has thus far not been a leader in examining its past. Bragg’s predecessor Cy Vance established a CIU in 2010, but it was widely criticized for not pursuing real investigations. In contrast, the CIU in Brooklyn is held up as a national example of how prosecutors can play a key role in the exoneration process.
Terri Rosenblatt, a former public defender who has been picked to lead the PCJU, says the new unit will look to Brooklyn as a model, especially when it comes to streamlining the review process. The old way of doing things, she said, “wound up with innocent people spending years or sometimes even decades in prison that they shouldn’t have.”
The PCJU will accept applications from anyone with a closed case who was prosecuted by the Manhattan DA’s office. Those not directly involved can also submit an application on someone else’s behalf. Bragg says meaningful reviews will not only correct past mistakes but also allow DAs to learn from those mistakes. More than that, “[I]t provides a moment of reflection … all of our work is centered around community trust, because the system doesn’t work unless there’s trust.”
Bragg, who formerly worked as a deputy to the state attorney general, has taken criticism for the PCJU and other initiatives, like seeking alternatives to incarceration, by opponents who paint him as soft on crime. Rosenblatt pushed back on such criticism, saying the new unit recognizes “that system actors from all sides are human and capable of making mistakes. I think that that’s not inconsistent with also knowing that the vast, vast majority of work that all prosecutor’s offices do is with the utmost integrity and justice-mindedness.”
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