Reviewing How Convictions Get Reviewed

In 2010, the Colorado Attorney General’s and Denver DA’s Offices obtained $2.6 million in federal grant money to conduct a “Justice Review Project” (JRP), in which they reviewed over 5,000 cases of incarcerated Colorado inmates to see if any of them would benefit from post-conviction DNA testing which may prove the inmates’ innocence. After four years and millions of dollars spent, the AG and Denver DA recommended only a single case for DNA testing. The testing in that single case proved Robert Dewey innocent, and in 2012, he was released after 17 years in prison. After the JRP ended, the AG and Denver DA proclaimed that the denial of DNA testing to the nearly 5,000 other inmates who sought it “is a validation that the Colorado criminal justice system is robust and serving the ends of justice ….”

The EP requested documents prepared by the JRP to determine the basis for denying DNA testing to all but one person. Although the AG and DA’s Offices turned over some documents, they withheld key documents concerning why inmates were denied DNA testing.

The EP’s suit alleges that “there is a compelling public interest in access to the information contained in” these documents “because they allow the taxpayers to see how the AG and DA spent their $2.6 million and whether the JRP results, in fact, confirm that prosecutors work to achieve justice in Colorado,” as claimed by the AG when the project ended in 2014.

Some of the criteria used by the JRP in denying access to testing for individuals claiming their innocence is very concerning. Over and over again, we have seen post-conviction DNA testing tell a story quite different than the one long-believed to be true.

For instance, the JRP apparently refused to do any DNA testing where an inmate confessed. But we know that more than 30% of DNA exonerees nationally falsely confessed, so it is short-sighted to use a confession as the sole basis to deny testing. EP attorneys have been involved in multiple cases from across the country where new evidence proved confessions false.

When the JRP ended in 2014, the spokeswoman from the AG’s Office proclaimed, “One takeaway is that Colorado’s prosecutors do an excellent job of getting it right the first time.” But the idea that only one person out of 5,000 deserved testing—much less exoneration—is inherently unbelievable. Now the AG’s Office doesn’t want to release to the public documents that would show whether or not its proclamation is true. In the interest of transparency and the compelling public interest in knowing how the JRP spent federal taxpayer money, the AG’s Office should release the documents.