DA’s wrongful conviction unit approaches its 50th case: Katz

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A new unit within the Queens district attorney’s office that reviews past cases for wrongful convictions, has taken on nearly 50 cases since being created on Jan. 1, 2020, District Attorney Katz announced this week.

The Conviction Integrity Unit, a unit promised by Katz during her campaign for office, has received 46 cases for review in order to determine past cases of wrongful conviction. Using interviews with new witnesses and the re-assessment of DNA evidence when available, ten of the 46 cases are under active re-investigation.

Six cases have been closed after either being withdrawn from consideration or referred to the appropriate jurisdictions.

“No one is perfect. No system is without flaws. And we know, without a doubt, that mistakes can happen, resulting in a miscarriage of justice,” Katz said. “It is vitally important to have a Unit [sic] that is dedicated to reviewing credible cases and empowered to make recommendations on anyone who should be exonerated if found to be wrongfully convicted.”

The unit is lead by Bryce Benjet, a former professor at Cardozo Law School for the Innocence Project who also handled a national docket of 25 to 30 cases that focused on DNA testing and other forensic evidence.

The unit also recently hired Alexis Celestin, a former prosecutor in the Westchester DA’s office. More attorneys and investigators will join the team in coming months, according to Katz. Additionally, the DA’s office is in discussions with law programs hoping to establish a clinic through which law students will assist in screening and investigating cases.

“Without a doubt, a wrongful conviction destroys a life. But, it also devastates that wrongfully convicted person’s family,” Katz said. “It is worth noting that when an innocent individual is locked away for a crime he or she did not commit, it means the guilty party has evaded justice and is free to commit other crimes.”