New Jersey Attorney General launches a statewide conviction review unit and cold case network

Carolyn Murray (l) will be the first director of the state’s conviction review unit.

The New Jersey Attorney General’s Office is creating two statewide initiatives to promote public safety and strengthen the public’s confidence in the criminal justice system: a statewide conviction review unit and a statewide cold case network.

The conviction review unit will be funded partially with a U.S. Department of Justice grant.  The new unit will review claims of actual innocence, investigate those deemed meritorious, and present its findings to the attorney general for decision and appropriate action. Carolyn Murray, a Superior Court Judge in Essex County, has stepped down from her judicial position to assume responsibility as the first director of the conviction review unit. The unit will be housed within the Attorney General’s Office of Public Integrity & Accountability.

The cold case network will involve a statewide network of regional cold case task forces that will pool personnel, expertise, technology, and resources to solve cold cases. The regional task forces will be modeled on the North Jersey Regional Cold Case Task Force, a collaboration announced last week involving the Bergen, Essex, and Passaic County prosecutor’s offices, and will receive additional resources and support from the Attorney General’s Office and New Jersey State Police.

The creation of these two initiatives marks the culmination of a working group convened by Attorney General Gurbir Grewal last year.  In the spring of 2018, Grewal asked Virginia Long, a former associate justice of the New Jersey Supreme Court, and Paul Fishman, a former U.S. Attorney for the District of New Jersey, to lead a working group to study whether the New Jersey Attorney General’s Office should create statewide conviction review and cold case units, and to make detailed recommendations about the scope of work, structure, and staffing of such units

Grewal said the creation of the two initiatives is based on a simple premise. “Those who are innocent should not remain in prison, and those who are guilty should not remain on the streets,” he said. “These two statewide initiatives will ensure that those who break the law are held accountable, no matter how long ago the crime occurred, and provide further proof that you can promote public safety while also strengthening the public’s confidence in the criminal justice system.”

The statewide conviction review unit will investigate meritorious claims of actual innocence. It will bring “fresh eyes to each case and a commitment to single-mindedly seek the truth,” said Office of Public Integrity and Accountability Director Thomas Eicher. “It is vital that the public have confidence in the work that we do in law enforcement, and the initiatives clearly demonstrate that our mission is not to rack up convictions, but to pursue justice in each and every case.”

The working group recommended that the conviction review unit be an independent unit within the attorney general’s office, with statewide jurisdiction to ensure consistent and objective reviews of wrongful conviction claims.  To ensure its independence, the unit will be housed within the New Jersey Office of Public Integrity and Accountability and will operate separate and apart from the New Jersey Division of Criminal Justice and the county prosecutors’ offices that prosecuted the cases subject to review.

The unit’s jurisdiction will be limited to claims of actual innocence, as opposed to claims of wrongful conviction that are procedural in nature, such as errors at trial unrelated to innocence.  The unit will only accept claims of innocence once the petitioner has exhausted all appeals and post-conviction petitions. Officials said this will allow the unit to focus on claims of wrongful conviction by those for whom the unit is the only remaining avenue of redress. The unit will prioritize the review of those who are still in custody. The unit will accept claims of wrongful conviction from a wide variety of sources, including prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges, law enforcement, innocence groups, defendants, defendants’ families, the media, and others.  Due to the anticipated volume of claims and importance of thoroughly reviewing each petition, the unit will work with law schools and innocence groups for assistance with intake and screening.  It will partner with the Princeton-based Centurion, a nonprofit organization that works to free the innocent from prison, for assistance in intake and screening, as well as training and policy development. To ensure every claim of innocence receives proper consideration, there will be a standard, readily available intake form, along with a tracking system that allows for prioritizing claims and notifying petitioners and victims of the status of claims during the review process.

A claim of innocence will trigger an initial review.  If it is determined by the unit that the claim is plausible, it will trigger a complete and thorough investigation. A complete investigation will, at a minimum, involve an examination of all investigative and prosecutorial files (including attorney work-product) as well as all materials available from defense counsel. When appropriate, it will also include a fresh investigation involving scientific testing, interviews of witnesses, and consideration of any available evidence. The unit will seek input from the victim or victim’s surviving family, which will be taken into account prior to any final decision. The unit will present the findings of its investigations to the New Jersey Attorney General for a final decision and appropriate action.

The attorney general will establish an advisory group of experienced academics, practitioners, and innocence experts to evaluate the unit’s policies and procedures and provide recommendations going forward.  This advisory group will also update the unit on nationwide developments and best practices in the area of wrongful convictions. As part of its mandate, the unit will seek to identify trends that give rise to wrongful convictions. By identifying problems and seeking to correct them, the unit will help law enforcement improve current practices and increase the likelihood of successful prosecutions in the future.