MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison and metro prosecutors announced the launch of a new unit on Tuesday that would review potentially wrongful convictions through a partnership with the Innocence Project of Minnesota.
The partnership, known as the Great North Innocence Project, is funded by a two-year, $300,000 grant from the Justice Department and will be the first of its kind in the state to review the cases of people imprisoned for crimes they may not have committed. The new unit will also attempt to determine frequent causes of wrongful convictions to prevent such cases and potentially identify who actually committed the crime in some cases.
“It’s important to understand when we do not hit the mark of justice and to correct those occasions when that happens,” Ellison said at a news conference Tuesday. “When you are in the justice business and in a position to take someone’s liberty away, you should never stop pursuing justice and the truth.”
Minnesota becomes the 86th jurisdiction to announce the creation of a conviction review unit but just the seventh to implement a statewide review unit. According to the National Registry of Exonerations, more than 2,800 people nationwide have been exonerated since 1989 and more than 500 had wrongful convictions overturned through the work of review units.
The advisory board consists of 16 leading experts that include Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman and Ramsey County Attorney John Choi — prosecutors for the state’s two largest counties — as well as former Minnesota Supreme Court Justice Paul Anderson and former Minneapolis NAACP President Leslie Redmond.
The board also includes St. Thomas law professor Mark Osler, who served as the chairman of a group of experts who recommended the commutation of the life sentence of Myon Burrell after examining his conviction and sentence. Burrell was convicted in the killing of a girl hit by a stray bullet in 2002 and served 18 years before he was released.
“This is a step toward re-establishing respect for law enforcement because we respect things that have integrity, and part of integrity is the willingness to acknowledge we’ve made a mistake,” Osler said. “There’s going to be, from here forward, a new way to gain that integrity.”
Carrie Sperling, the unit’s executive director, said applications are available in libraries at prison facilities across the state in English, Spanish, Hmong and Somali. The board will examine applications in an initial review where they deem a case to have plausible lines of investigation before doing a more through investigation.
Ellison said it will take time to ramp up the unit, with the need to recruit pro bono help from lawyers and law students. But he said they would try to get going as fast as they can, and would be raising money to expand the work to include reviewing potentially excessive sentences as well as convictions.
“If I went to the community and I said until we get a mountain of money we can’t do anything, they’d say wait a minute let’s try to do something. Let’s do the best we can with what we’ve got,” he said.
Mohamed Ibrahim is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.