RICHMOND, Va. (WAVY) — A new unit launched by Virginia’s Office of the Attorney General is looking to help overturn wrongful convictions and help make the commonwealth more just and fair.
On Tuesday, the office announced the creation of the Conviction Integrity Unit, which will be made up of three lawyers and an investigator, according to Attorney General Mark Herring.
“This will be a distinct team within my office focused on investigating and evaluating wrongful convictions, taking proactive steps to overturn wrongful convictions, and implementing important changes in state law that will finally allow for wrongfully convicted people to have their claims heard in court,” Herring said.
Herring says there’s already a process to get convictions overturned but, thanks to new leadership and a bill passed last year in the General Assembly, those who are wrongfully convicted and wish to petition will now have a fighting chance.
“The problem in Virginia is that while the process did exist, there’s so many procedural hurdles and the bar was set so high, it seemed to create the illusion you could have that claim heard. The hurdles were so many and the bar set so high to get to the truth,” he said. “Our goal has to be to [get] justice and getting to the truth, not just defending convictions in defiance of logic and in defiance of the facts or new evidence.”
By adding their own investigator to the team, Herring says it’s a big step to help build confidence among residents. It will allow his office to do independent investigations of cases instead of allowing law enforcement agencies to review their own cases.
Whether people were innocently locked up and convicted due to a number of issues such as prosecutorial mistakes or racial biases, Herring believes this is another step in the right direction for Virginia.
“We know many times people enter the criminal justice system in many ways and experience it differently. We know Black Virginians and people of color experience it differently. We have to have a system that people have confidence in. That it’s just and fair. This is just one more way that we can commit ourselves to making sure we get it right,” he said.
Herring believes it’s the government’s responsibility to make amends when it’s been wrong, especially when convicting innocent people.
He says he’s been on phone calls where he’s had to apologize to those who have spent years behind bars.
“To be wrongfully convicted of a crime is an injustice that can never fully be righted. That’s why this unit is so important because we want to make sure we get every single one right,” he said.
He hopes the creation of this unit shows the progress his office has made, especially given the history of Virginia’s attorney general’s office when it comes to standing in the way of progress. Herring cited the cases of Barbara Johns’ school integration, the Lovings’ interracial marriage, and VMI’s exclusion of female students.
He says the goal of his office is to fight for his people. It’s also why he announced the creation of the Office of Civil Rights within the attorney general’s office earlier this year.
“The attorney general should be on the side of the people not perpetuating injustices and this is my commitment to that,” he said about the addition of the unit.
Herring says the creation of the unit is underway and they have already received a number of petitions for wrongful convictions that they plan to work on as quickly as possible.