Attorney General Rob Bonta, with Assemblymember Mia Bonta (left), announce the creation of the Office of Gun Violence Prevention within the California Department of Justice at a press event in San Francisco on Sept. 21, 2022. Photo by Martin do Nascimento, CalMatters

By Nigel Duara | CALMatters

(CALMATTERS) – The California Department of Justice has created a new unit to investigate convictions for potential legal errors, and the majority of its work will involve convictions in small counties that don’t already have a team to review cases. 

Attorney General Rob Bonta announced Friday that the Post-Conviction Justice Unit will hire two deputy attorneys general to review cases the justice department has taken to trial. Once the department examines its own cases, Bonta said the unit will begin reviewing cases in counties that don’t have their own teams to review convictions.

The new unit is part of a nationwide push to reconsider convictions and sentences that might have been biased by racial prejudice or fumbled at the investigative stage or would benefit from forensic techniques that weren’t available at the time of the trial.  

  • Bonta: “All prosecutors have a duty to ensure the integrity of their convictions with a deeper understanding of issues that affect conviction, from DNA to racism. It’s imperative that every prosecutor’s office consider how these issues affect their convictions, both present and past. Nobody should serve time for a crime they didn’t commit.”
  • California District Attorneys Association CEO Greg Totten:“Our role as prosecutors is that ‘neither guilt shall escape, nor innocence suffer.’ Many district attorneys have similar units, and we believe this an entirely appropriate step for the Attorney General to take that will help ensure justice.”

California has 17 county-level post-conviction units. The justice department handles trials when the local prosecutor has a conflict of interest, and represents the state in all appeals. 

Independent groups also try to exonerate innocent people. The California Innocence Project, based at the California Western School of Law in San Diego, has seven active cases in which it has filed appeals seeking release of defendants. The group reviews more than 2,000 innocence claims from California inmates each year. 

According to the National Registry of Exonerations, 281 people have been exonerated in California since 1989.

  • Bonta: “Despite these efforts, our best efforts, we know our criminal legal system is not infallible. It is not perfect. There are errors that can have serious, devastating consequences on individuals, on families and their communities.”