Santa Clara County public defender to launch massive search for the wrongfully convicted
By Karen de Sá
As part of a criminal justice review unprecedented in county history, the Santa Clara County public defender's has launched a massive project to revisit 1,500 or more sexual assault convictions dating back two decades to determine whether innocent people may have been put behind bars.
A Mercury News report disclosed late last year that members of Valley Medical Center's Sexual Assault Response Team have been videotaping examinations of patients since 1991, but prosecutors failed to inform defense attorneys in cases involving those patients that such critical evidence existed. Under pressure to answer for the failure, District Attorney Dolores Carr has since revealed there are 3,300 such tapes in existence, and this week she vowed to inform defense attorneys of each case involving a medical-exam videotape where a defendant was convicted.
To ensure justice was served in the cases in question, county supervisors on Tuesday voted to pull almost $100,000 from their hopelessly depleted general fund to provide emergency seed money to the Public Defender's Office.
In an undertaking Public Defender Mary Greenwood described as extraordinary, the funds will provide for initial attorney, expert and forensic reviews of previously closed criminal cases that began trickling in Monday.
The videotapes could well prove to be critical evidence in cases that landed defendants in prison or separated children from their parents in the foster-care courts.
Ultimately, the convictions in the vast majority of those cases will likely stand, but attorneys must review each of them to find the small number in which the videotaped examinations might suggest no sexual assault had occurred.
"The importance of the tapes is that with this new evidence, we need to see if there are people who were wrongfully convicted who are incarcerated," Greenwood said.
Although still photographs from the medical exams were turned over to defense attorneys, the existence of the videotapes was previously unknown to defense teams, despite prosecutors' legal obligation to disclose evidence that could be beneficial to defendants.
The scope of the enormous task ahead for the Public Defender's Office, which handled 80 percent of the cases in question, is still unknown. Greenwood said the funding is only startup money, because more resources will be needed to handle the flood of cases. Initial evaluation by outside medical experts of the videotapes, medical records and case files is expected to cost taxpayers as much as $3,000 per case. If experts later testify in court, those costs could run as high as $10,000, and Greenwood anticipates having to return to the board to seek more funds in the future.
At Tuesday's supervisors meeting, the funding approval came and went with no discussion. But in interviews following the vote, supervisors said they are troubled for two reasons: that they must suddenly, in the worst of economic times, devote precious resources to mopping up a mess they did not make; and that they must confront, in hundreds upon hundreds of cases, the vexing possibility of wrongful conviction.
Supervisor David Cortese, a former criminal defense attorney, said he had not "analyzed the systemic problem in order to lay blame." But he added, "at some point, I intend to come to a full understanding so we can make sure nothing like this ever happens again."
Cortese and Supervisor George Shirakawa Jr. both said approving the funds was a no-brainer, despite the desperate state of the county's budget, burdened by a projected $230 million shortfall.
"It is unfortunate that we have to spend these funds during our budget crisis," Shirakawa said. "But I am committed to making right any injustice that might have occurred."
The $99,882 approved Tuesday includes funding for a new attorney who will begin contacting a host of former clients. Based on the new videotaped evidence available, their cases must be evaluated to determine whether there are new legal pathways to exoneration.
Assistant Public Defender Nona Hughes will lead the review team, coordinating the attorneys and forensic experts who will be examining the evidence. And Monday, she received letters from the district attorney highlighting the first six cases in which videotapes must be reviewed, all of which involve now-imprisoned defendants. As many as 500 more are expected shortly, Hughes said, though it was unclear when the hundreds of others will follow.
If the videotapes reveal evidence that could have affected the outcome of a case, the Public Defender's Office will file a writ of habeas corpus, the legal avenue to free the unlawfully detained, Greenwood vowed. She added that the result could ultimately be "retrial of an untold number of criminal cases."
Contact Karen de Sá at firstname.lastname@example.org or (408) 920-5781.
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