Philly DA's reforms unit dedicated to reviewing innocence claims

The Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office has revamped its unit dedicated to reviewing inmates’ claims of innocence, adding staff and establishing clearer protocols for how it plans to consider and investigate cases.

The overhauled Conviction Review Unit, which had just one part-time staff member during its nearly three-year existence, now has four dedicated staffers and will report to Kathleen Martin, chief of staff to District Attorney Seth Williams, Martin said this week.

The unit also has created standardized application guidelines for inmates who believe they have evidence proving their innocence, and will make public a variety of documents related to its work, including an annual report.

“Wrongful convictions don’t help the system at all,” Martin said.

Williams, at a news conference announcing the changes, said, "The thought that anyone would be in jail a day for something they didn't do should repulse everyone, whatever language they speak."

The changes have been in the works for several months, Martin said. She and Williams, who is in the middle of a reelection campaign, also dismissed suggestions that the timing of the announcement was influenced by politics.

"My only goal since becoming the DA is to become a good steward for this office," he said.

The unit, launched in April 2014, had been criticized by some criminal justice advocates as lacking the resources and transparency of other successful units across the country. The Inquirer and Daily News reported in November that while similar units in cities such as Dallas and New York City had exonerated dozens of inmates, Philadelphia’s had not found a single case worthy of overturning.

That remains true, but the unit’s new staffers -- including Elizabeth Graham-Rubin, the new director, and Andrew Wellbrock, assistant director -- said this week that among other preliminary steps, they have spoken with the Pennsylvania Innocence Project to find cases that might be a fit.

“To have a whole unit dedicated to [innocence investigations] is great,” Graham-Rubin said.

The unit will only consider claims of “actual innocence,” where an inmate or their attorney can provide compelling evidence that they were wrongfully convicted, Martin said. It will not, by contrast, take on cases where legal issues  such as having a bad trial lawyer may have hurt their defense. Those issues will continue to be handled by the office’s Post Conviction Relief Act unit.

Investigations by the unit could lead to a number of outcomes, from upholding charges to recommending different sentences or exonerating inmates. The unit's recommendations will be given to Williams, who will make the final decision.

Martin said the unit’s new structure and operating guidelines were developed after consultation with academic experts, innocence advocates, and members of units in other cities.

That list included John Hollway, executive director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Quattrone Center for the Fair Administration of Justice. Hollway, who authored a report on best practices for conviction review units, said the new staffers “seem very sincere in a desire to have a conviction review unit that [is] doing important work.”

The unit will still be staffed by two longtime prosecutors. Experts often say that having a mix of legal professionals can prove beneficial. Graham-Rubin has spent 25 years in the DA’s Office, and Wellbrock has worked there since graduating from Temple Law School in 2008.

But Graham-Rubin, who previously worked on postconviction issues, said she volunteered for the role because she was drawn to its mission. And Wellbrock, also enthusiastic about the unit’s purpose, added that Martin had years of experience as a defense attorney.

The staff is rounded out by Detective Steve Hedlin, who served for 20 years with the SEPTA Transit Police, and Jillian Roth, a paralegal.

Martin, who is bullish on the unit’s new makeup, said the office approached external candidates about the unit but acknowledged that recruiting was difficult in the middle of an election year. She also said: “We didn’t want to delay [the reforms] any further.”

The unit was the focus of the first part of an Inquirer and Daily News series titled "Justice on Hold," published Nov. 20, 2016.

The story described how staff members with the nonprofit organization Centurion Ministries, which works to free wrongfully convicted inmates from prison, had grown frustrated that the unit had declined to exonerate Larry Walker, sentenced to life in prison in 1983 for killing his friend Clyde Coleman in Southwest Philadelphia.

While reinvestigating Walker’s case, Centurion staffers Jim McCloskey and Alan Maimon found a Philadelphia native living in Virginia Beach, Va., who said another man once boasted to her about his role in the killing. That man had no reason to associate with Walker, she said.

Walker, whose conviction lacked physical evidence and hinged largely on the testimony of a 15-year-old neighbor, has maintained his innocence, and McCloskey and Maimon believe him. But the DA’s Office, after reviewing the record and interviewing the woman in Virginia, declined to take further action.

Martin said the unit would not rule out taking up Walker’s case again, but that it was not at the top of the reorganized unit’s priority list.

McCloskey declined to comment Wednesday on that decision, but said the unit’s new setup “appears to be well-intentioned and serious in its desire to identify and seek justice for Philadelphia’s convicted innocent. As in all endeavors, the proof will be in the pudding.”

Graham-Rubin said the unit was in the early stages of sifting through potential cases to investigate.

“I think it’s going to be fascinating,” she said.