Criminal Justice Reform
What is a Conviction Review Unit? A Look Inside Nashville’s Prosecutor’s Office and MICAH’s Push for Memphis’s Own CRU.
Davidson County, as of December 29, 2016, implemented a Conviction Review Unit (CRU)
as a part of Davidson County’s district Attorney’s Office. Signed by Glenn R. Funk, Davidson County’s District Attorney General, the CRU aims to reverse wrongful convictions if new and credible material evidence about a previously settled trial comes to light.
The CRU gives wrongly convicted persons who otherwise would be stuck in prison a second
chance, acting as a safeguard for such times as when new evidence in a case is submitted.
Inside the policy, the standard for using the CRU is laid out as the following, “When a
prosecutor knows of clear and convincing evidence establishing that a defendant was convicted in the prosecutor’s jurisdiction of an offense that the defendant did not commit, the prosecutor shall remedy the conviction.”
The effects of the CRU have already been felt in positive ways across Davidson County, such in the case of Joseph Webster, who was wrongly convicted in the murder of Leroy Owens.
Webster spent 15 years in prison for the crime which he did not commit and was the first
person exonerated under Davidson County’s Conviction Review Unit.
Now, MICAH, CALEB’s sister organization in Memphis, is pushing for a Conviction Review Unit in Shelby County. Speaking to News Channel 3, Dr. William Arnold Jr. spoke to the benefits and implementation of a Conviction Review Unit after he had his own conviction overturned after 6 years in prison.
“An individual has to have an actual claim of innocence, you have to submit an application, and there is protocol that is followed.” Joining him for the interview with News Channel 3 was Janiece Lee, who represented MICAH. When asked about why Shelby County doesn’t have a Conviction Review Unit, and the benefits to its introduction, Lee had this to say:
“I think that the whole purpose of the CRU is to establish and maintain integrity, and to seek justice even after a conviction. MICAH is working to get a conviction review unit put in Shelby County.”
As of 2019, 45 jurisdictions across the country had implemented their own Conviction Review Units, as national interest, and support for such a safeguard grow in areas all over the country. An estimated 95% percent of convictions in the United States come pre-trial in the form of plea bargains, which in some cases come from defendants who feel they have no other choice.
In addition to this, a study conducted by Ohio State University which surveyed 188 judges,
prosecuting attorneys, public defenders, sheriffs, and police found that 75% of the respondents believed that 0.5% of individuals were wrongfully convicted. A small number certainly, but a number that translates to roughly 11,500 people locked behind bars due to a wrongful conviction.
Conviction Review Units attempt to free and empower the 0.5% of people who otherwise
would be wrongfully locked away. In Shelby County and beyond, such a unit is critical to
maintaining justice and putting a dent in the mass incarceration plague that the country finds itself battling.
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CALEB is an institutional coalition of faith-based, labor, and community groups working to build power to affect change in Chattanooga, TN.