Prosecution Integrity Unit to shed light on justice system

We are living in exceptional and scary times. A virus that is measured by the near invisible metric of nanometers has brought the world to its knees, killing more people in this country than the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Vietnam and the Revolutionary War combined.

William McDermott.

And, as the world struggles to stand up, millions of our fellow countrymen, and women, have taken to their knees in protest of what is perceived as systematic injustice.

Yet as these two plights converge upon us, a common cure emerges.

In 1914, Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis famously noted that “sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.” More than 100 years later, it seems that not only can sunlight inactivate the virus, but when passed through the prism of integrity it can restore faith in our judicial system as well.

As our national conversation turns toward re-examining the roles of both police and prosecutors, there are core principles that I believe can guide the discussion – and perhaps none are more important than that of integrity. Some have said that wisdom is knowing the right path to take, and integrity is taking it.

It requires courage in the face of danger, perseverance in times of exhaustion and honesty regardless of consequence.

Elected prosecutors across the United States have started that conversation on the local level. From large metropolitan areas to rural jurisdictions, State’s Attorneys and District Attorneys alike have sought new ways to tackle old and enduring problems.

Conviction Integrity Units (CIUs) are being created at lightning speed and have become the favored tool in the toolbox of possible solutions.

Generally, all CIUs share the same qualities and objectives. They investigate claims of actual innocence and wrongful conviction – hence the term conviction integrity.

A claim of actual innocence is governed by Maryland Rule 4-332 and requires that the claimant prove that, not only did he or she not commit the crime, but that there is newly discovered evidence that could not have been discovered prior to trial, or even after the trial to support a motion for a new trial.

These genus of claims most often occur in the context of newly discovered DNA evidence, but, as you can imagine, it is an incredibly high hurdle to overcome. Importantly, what almost all CIUs refuse to do is examine procedural trial errors.

Earlier this year, it came to the attention of the Office of the State’s Attorney for Wicomico County that the Salisbury Police Department’s property facilities had been compromised.  While news releases were previously disseminated, the investigation has been referred to the Office of the State Prosecutor and remains ongoing.

I have noted in a previous article that this time period in an investigation can be extraordinarily frustrating to the general public due to law enforcement’s ethical obligations to refrain from commenting upon active inquiries.

What we can say, however, is that part of the investigation has required the formation of a task force chaired by the Maryland State Police, of which includes stakeholders from this office, the Public Defender’s Office, the Salisbury Police Department and an outside accounting firm responsible for performing a 100 percent audit of the over 80,000 pieces of evidence that should be contained within the SPD facilities.

As a result of that investigation, other investigations have been initiated. The results of these investigations will be released at the appropriate time, once all parties involved have been afforded due process.

In the meantime, we have continued to work with defense attorneys and judges in filing the appropriate disclosures and planning for future proceedings.

But, from this crisis of confidence, an opportunity for something truly innovative has emerged.

Conviction Integrity Units by their very design focus on the end result – the conviction. In our opinion, this seems to be a narrow and short-sighted approach. As we contemplated building something new, we focused on a more holistic approach.

We knew in order to achieve meaningful improvement, we needed to look at the whole process. As State’s Attorney Jamie Dykes met with interested parties, an elegant solution was born: The Prosecution Integrity Unit.

From conception, this is a unit that will examine the system in totality, as opposed to holding a microscope up to its individual components, particularly only the end result.

From ensuring that prosecutors and law enforcement officers receive only the best training when it comes to ethical obligations, to building internal systems that contain the proper and necessary checks and balances on our own authority, the members of the prosecution integrity unit will do far more than just handle cases where alleged instances of misconduct have occurred. They will be proactive as opposed to reactive.

Thankfully, both our County Executive and County Council demonstrated true leadership when they recently approved the formation of our unit. They have created and funded two new positions, one prosecutor and one investigator.

Currently, we are actively recruiting for this unit and are being incredibly selective in that process, as the right people will undoubtedly make all the difference.

To be clear, while some have loudly called for the complete abolition of police departments, and a top-to-bottom restructuring of prosecutor offices – I strongly disagree with them. I have personally witnessed the unabashed and selfless valiance of law enforcement officers who steadfastly protect our communities.

I have also seen, firsthand, the immeasurable sacrifice of prosecutors who trade time with their families in order to ensure that other families find both justice and peace. We are an honorable profession at our core.

Even so, I am not so foolishly enamored with our system of jurisprudence that I cannot acknowledge its imperfections. Improvements can always be made, and it is imperative to do so. Knowing that changes must be done, does away with the fear of having to do them.

The foundations and walls of our house are strong, but perhaps it is time to let a little more sunshine in.

William McDermott serves as Deputy Wicomico State’s Attorney.

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