Attorney general announces initiatives to strengthen public confidence

BY Briana Vannozzi, Correspondent |

You’re accused of a crime, arrested, convicted and sent behind bars. But starting Thursday, people imprisoned for an offense they say they didn’t commit will have a new opportunity to prove their innocence.

“These two programs are both based on one simple premise: that those who are innocent should not remain in prison and that those who are guilty should not remain on our streets,” said New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal.

Thursday Grewal announced two new statewide programs: the first-ever Conviction Review Unit and a Cold Case Network that will use new technologies and resources to solve old crimes.

“The unit will be tasked with reviewing claims of actual innocence and they will be tasked with determining whether those claims have merit and making recommendations to me about appropriate action,” said Grewal.

“We will go forward with a collaborative spirit. We will go forward with an intent to listen and to hear,” said Hon. Carolyn Murray.

Murray stepped from her judicial position to oversee the new Conviction Review Unit. It’ll accept claims from defendants, attorneys, judges, police and innocence organizations, but only after a person has exhausted all appeals and post-conviction petitions. It’s partially funded through a Department of Justice grant, and is the result of a working group convened last year by the attorney general.

“We can estimate between 1% and 5% of all incarcerated individuals have been wrongly convicted. For rapes and rape murders the number is much higher. So applying the most parsimonious model, that would be 1%, to our prison population, we’re talking about 15,000 wrongfully convicted individuals, and yet in 2018 only 118 exonerations took place across the entire country,” said Justice Virginia Long, who was previously on the NJ Supreme Court.

Meanwhile the Cold Case Unit will involve a system of regional task forces modeled after the one created for North Jersey last week. This unit will get support from the State Police and county prosecutor’s offices.

“Trying to give people some sense of peace, whether that’s solving an aggravating sexual assault, whether that’s solving a homicide, whether that’s getting someone out of prison who’s been there maybe for years and was wrongly convicted, that is new life for those people who may have been wrongly convicted. That is new life for a victim that’s able to move on,” said Col. Patrick Callahan, superintendent of the New Jersey State Police.

“This is the last fail safe that we offer through the Conviction Review Unit. This is an added check to ensure that justice is being administered in a fair and impartial manner across the state and that innocent individuals not being prosecuted and convicted of crimes,” Grewal added.

The attorney general says cases will be prioritized based on their history, meaning the oldest first, the folks who have been potentially wrongfully sitting in jail the longest. The work, he says, starts today.