Hennepin County Attorney unveils new unit to review past convictions

Hennepin County Attorney Mary Moriarty unveiled a new "conviction integrity unit" on Monday that will work to review past convictions by the office.

Moriarty previously announced the creation of the Division of Professional Standards -- a division charged with training staff to make sure they are meeting their legal responsibilities in criminal cases. Largely, that seems to be making sure defendants have been provided potentially exculpatory data and other evidence that might be used to impeach a state witness.

In years past, defense attorneys have accused prosecutors -- in Hennepin County and elsewhere -- of withholding records or past complaints against officers brought in to testify at trial.

"Like all human systems, our criminal legal system is fallible," Moriarty said. "We know that the system occasionally breaks down. People make mistakes, and individuals are convicted of crimes they did not commit, or suffer from other miscarriages of justice."

Moriarty pointed to the case of Marvin Haynes – who took part in Monday's news conference – the man convicted in a 2004 murder at a Minneapolis flower shop and served 19 years behind bars before being exonerated.

The new Conviction Integrity Unit will look back at past convictions to determine if just processes were followed. It will be run by Andrew Markquart, who worked with the Great North Innocence Project and helped free Haynes.

"The basic function of the Conviction Integrity Unit is to investigate past convictions where there is a credible basis to suspect that a wrongful conviction or some other serious injustice may have occurred," said Moriarty.

The unit will be similar to the state's Conviction Review Unit which is run by the Minnesota Attorney General's Office. Moriarty says her office has worked with that unit and will continue to do so. But, since most of the cases the Conviction Review Unit looks at are from Hennepin County, Moriarty says the new unit will help take some of the load off the state unit.

Claire Diegel, the director of the Division of Professional Standards, says they plan to work quickly to get the new unit up and running. Once they have a full staff, they will allow applications to be filed through the Hennepin County Attorney's website.

Moriarty said the new unit is about the office rectifying mistakes from the past.

"I think we have to have the humility to recognize that the things that we might have done many, many years ago, while they looked like the right thing to do at the time or not now," she explained. "We need to correct those."

"Mistakes were made, but we shouldn't continue to go on, even though we know that that's happened," she added, "when we know that there are people languishing in prison and that their families are also paying for that outside prison."