In 2007, Dallas County established the first Conviction Integrity Unit in the United States. Since that time, they've spread across the state of Texas and the U.S. Now, these specialized units are helping to exonerate wrongfully convicted criminals in the largest counties in Texas.
A recent Star-Telegram article reported on the case of a 40-year old Texas man sentenced to 50 years in prison for shooting a man in 1997 when he was 17. His victim, who had killed a close friend, recovered. But the 50-year sentence resulted from a conviction for engaging in organized crime. After investigation, the Tarrant County Conviction Integrity Unit believes that while he was guilty of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, a crime with a lower maximum sentence, he wasn't a member of a gang or any organized crime organization. Now, a state district judge, the Tarrant County district attorney, and the Tarrant County sheriff support the effort to lessen his sentence.
Conviction Integrity Units
Conviction Integrity Units have a unique origin story. In 2007, Dallas County had the highest wrongful conviction rate in Texas. So, the new district attorney, Craig Watkins, partnered with the Innocence Project of Texas to review more than 400 old cases. The Innocence Project of Texas formed as a nonprofit in 2006 to offer free investigative and legal services to indigent Texans convicted of crimes they did not commit.
Many of the cases Dallas County reviewed with the Innocence Project involved denied DNA testing requests, an easy fix. To ensure that mistaken convictions don't happen again, District Attorney Watkins formed the country's first voluntary conviction integrity unit. It now serves as the model for similar teams across the country.
Harris County Convictions
A 2016 story in the Dallas Tribune reported that in 2015, conviction integrity units were responsible for 39% of overturned wrongful convictions across the country. The units were responsible for 151 overturned convictions between 2003 and 2015, and half of those came from Harris County in Texas. Together, four Texas counties have been responsible for 90% of overturned convictions in the country through 2015.
In 2015 alone, Harris County was responsible for 42 of the 58 Conviction Integrity Unit exonerations in the U.S. that year. The unit requested testing for hundreds of drug cases, acting on a tip. The Houston Forensic Science Center, which does most of the DNA and drug testing for the Houston Police Department, discovered that dozens of drug convictions over two years involved substances that weren't illegal.
Investigative Scrutiny Protects Defendants
In 2019, the National Registry of Exonerations reported that in Texas, Dallas and Harris Counties alone were responsible for 228 Conviction Integrity Unit exonerations since the units began. Now, there are Conviction Integrity Units in Harris, Dallas, Bexar, Tarrant, and Travis counties in Texas and 65 teams across the country.
Conviction Integrity Units are a good thing for Texas defendants. Police and prosecutors know that their investigations must be thorough and accurate. If they don't do the hard investigative work before trial, a Conviction Integrity Unit and the press may embarrass them later. That's not to say that prosecutors haven't been involved in exonerations before Conviction Integrity Units came along. They always have been. But these new units offer a focus of investigatory and legal professionals who do nothing but scrutinize the integrity of convictions. Mistakes happen. But mistaken convictions that destroy a life – and sometimes end a life – are unacceptable.
If you're facing a charge for a crime, understand that you are innocent until proven guilty. A criminal charge does not mean you'll be convicted. You need a skilled criminal defense attorney to protect your rights through the criminal justice system. Attorney Doug Murphy is a Board Certified criminal defense attorney. He's not just an attorney; Murphy teaches criminal defense lawyers across the state. He was also awarded the Sharon Levine Unsung Hero Award by the Harris County Criminal Lawyers Association for his hand in exposing the flaws in the Houston Police Department Breath Alcohol Testing vans, which led the department to stop using them. He'll fight for you too. Contact the Doug Murphy Law Firm today for a consultation.