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New conviction integrity unit taking shape in Boulder County

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In March, Boulder County District Attorney Michael Dougherty announced the creation of a conviction integrity unit in the county which will review criminal cases for signs that defendants are actually innocent. Since then, his office and local criminal defense lawyers have been working to create review criteria and an application process.

The unit will consider any Boulder County case where the defendant has credible evidence that they are not guilty of the crime they stand convicted of. It generally will not consider cases involving legal or procedural errors, which can be appealed relatively straightforwardly.

The working group decided not to place limits on the types of criminal charges to be reviewed, although the unit will prioritize people who are incarcerated.

"A lot of innocence projects tend to be related to really serious cases, like murder or rape, but this unit is going to be looking at claims of innocence on every single level of alleged crime," said one participant.

"For job applications, graduate school, housing requirements, Section 8 housing," he added, "having a conviction on your record is something that is really an impediment. ... The collateral consequences of having a conviction are really significant in this society, so it's excellent we're able to look at those cases as well."

Moreover, the unit will consider cases in which the defendant pled guilty, which is significant because guilty pleas cannot be appealed in most situations. Dougherty acknowledged that some defendants take plea deals even when they are not guilty, often because they fear the consequences of going to trial.

One defense attorney called the acceptance of plea cases "unique and really welcomed by the legal community" because defendants are under significant pressure to accept plea deals even when the facts are in dispute.

Partly, this is because the justice system simply could not function without plea agreements taking the place of most trials. According to the Bureau of Justice Assistance, between 90 and 95 percent of all criminal cases in the U.S. are resolved through plea bargaining.

The pressure to accept a deal also comes from prosecutors, who sometimes threaten to add charges, stack sentences and subject defendants to mandatory-minimum sentences if defendants insist on trial.

Dougherty notes that the new conviction integrity unit -- the first of its kind in Colorado -- enjoys overwhelming public support. In fact, a representative of the Denver District Attorney's Office attended one of the recent meetings.

Dougherty doesn't know how many cases the unit will be able to handle simultaneously, but he's confident it will be able to keep up. He hopes to have the application available on the Boulder DA's website by mid-September.

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