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113 – Award-Winning Criminal Justice Attorney Implements Cutting-Edge Data to Reexamine Convictions

113 – Award-Winning Criminal Justice Attorney Implements Cutting-Edge Data to Reexamine Convictions

Marissa Boyers Bluestine is an award-winning criminal justice attorney and reform advocate who serves as the Assistant Director of the Quattrone Center for the Fair Administration of Justice at the University of Pennsylvania Law School. As Assistant Director, she oversees policy and public awareness by promoting reform through cutting-edge data, public education, and legislative reform for issues and outdated laws that beleaguer the criminal justice system.

A former public defender, Marissa has helped facilitate the release of fourteen Pennsylvanians convicted of crimes they didn’t commit, in addition to proactively working with law enforcement to train, update, and include them in investigative techniques empirically proven to exceed obsolete practices that lead to wrongful convictions.

In this all-new installment of Open Mike, Marissa and Mike discuss the ever-growing need for conviction integrity units, holistic methods to help prosecutors’ offices prevent and rectify wrongful convictions, and how the prosecutorial function must be extended past merely convicting and incarcerating people.

Show Notes

[1:38] Introducing Marissa Boyers Bluestine, Assistant Director of the Quattron Center for the Fair Administration of Justice from University of Pennsylvania School of Law!

[01:48] We’ve talked about conviction integrity units (CIUs) on the show before… for our viewers who aren’t aware, could you tell us what they are and what they do?

[03:59] Why is it such a novel concept for prosecutors to hold their staff accountable, that they’re not railroading defendants?

[04:36] The prosecutorial function doesn’t end at conviction and incarceration. It even continues once justice is served — there’s no element of finality until justice is served.

[05:18] So, the enlightened prosecutors who aren’t out solely for convictions are taking justice seriously and digging into credible evidence that manifests decades later?

[07:46] How many prosecutors’ offices are there in this country?

­[09:19] I love that you’re hearing about new conviction integrity units, even though there are only 100 for 6,000 prosecutors’ offices. You have to have some political clout to pull this off, and be in the right jurisdiction!

[10:47] Karen McDonald, the Oakland County Prosecutor, is opening a conviction integrity unit in October, 2021.

[11:42] Visit convictionreview.net to check out a resource center designed for conviction review/integrity units in their beginning stages!

[12:29] Who are some of the exemplary conviction review units around the country?

[14:41] What does a conviction integrity “done wrong” set us up for?

[16:08] For the thousands of prosecutors’ offices that don’t have CIUs… how do you convince them to put aside the politics and mistakes that may have been made in favor of doing the right thing?

[17:42] There are a lot of common threads that link a lot of these wrongful convictions… what are some of the most frequent patterns you see?

[19:26] Prosecutors are protected from being sued by absolute immunity, even if there are bad actors involved. As a result, there are never any learnings that help fix the problems at hand.

[23:07] Under Brady law, exculpatory evidence submitted for review must be material; material evidence is the caveat.

[25:34] Tunnel vision in the criminal justice context is a tendency of participants in the system, such as police or prosecutors, to focus on a specific theory of a case and to dismiss or undervalue evidence which contradicts that theory.

[28:19] One of the key issues with CIUs is that they receive information and bring it to light — without them, the information would likely never see the light of day and the wrongfully convicted person would likely never be released. There’s a shocking parallel between the amount of cases go through CIUs and the amount of cases that involve withheld evidence violating Brady standards; it’s an extraordinarily high percentage.

[28:51] How many people are sitting in prison because exculpatory evidence was withheld? It has to be in the thousands.

[30:18] In the 28-year-long wrongful conviction case you mentioned… is that prosecutor’s office now going back and reviewing every single file they have to ensure they’ve gotten the right suspects?

[30:53] There should be a root cause analysis done of every exoneration case with people who have stakes in the outcome —  prosecutors, police, judges, defense, etc. No exoneration is ever one person; it’s a system with multiple players.

[32:31] How often, or how rare, is it for someone to give a false confession?

[33:18] The way police are trained to conduct interrogations is driven to get a statement of inculpability — to get a statement that self incriminates, regardless of actual truth. And the first step of this process is to confront a suspect, talk over them, and relentlessly hound them until they stop denying.

[36:35] Will Bendan Dassey ever get out of prison?

[37:15] What’s wrong with the judges who’ve studied that case, watched the show, and still remain unmoved and do nothing?

[38:27] The word “innocent” doesn’t appear in The Constitution. It’s about guilt or not-guilt. If the courts determine there wasn’t constitutional error — even if the person is innocent — they will remain in prison. We need to respond to cases of innocence. 43:56] [40:32 I think most states now mandate recordings of confessions to avoid false confessions, is that correct?

[41:36] Make sure to visit convictionreview.net for resources on wrongful convictions and to connect with a conviction review unit, and the Quattron Centre’s website for more holistic materials addressing all needed, long-term, structural improvements to the justice system.

[43:32] The Macomb County Prosecutor is also opening a conviction integrity unit.

[43:44] Marissa, thank you for being on the show, this was incredibly eye-opening! I really appreciate you educating me and our audience, this was really great.

[44:02] If you know somebody who needs to hear more about CIUs and Innocence Projects, like this episode, share, comment as you usually do, and thank you for watching! I look forward to seeing you next time on Open Mike.

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