When innocent people are locked up, guilty people go free. Now N.J. vows to put the true culprits in jail.

Updated Apr 11, 2019

Former Superior Court Judge Carolyn Murray speaks to reporters at a Trenton press conference where Attorney General Gurbir Grewal announced Murray would lead a new unit devoted to reviewing wrongful conviction claims.


When prosecutors dropped charges against Eric Kelley and Ralph Lee last year, it had been nearly a quarter-century since the murder of a Paterson video store clerk for which the pair were wrongly convicted.

Two men who professed innocence were now free — but the case had long gone cold, leaving the victim’s family without answers.

State Attorney General Gurbir Grewal announced Thursday the formation of a special unit in his office to review wrongful conviction claims and a separate, statewide law enforcement network to crack unsolved cases. The “conviction review unit” is the first such team inside a state attorney general’s office in the United States.

Grewal told reporters at a Trenton news conference the move was based on a “simple premise” — “that those who are innocent should not remain in prison, and those who are guilty should not remain on the streets.”

The premise may be simple, but the task ahead is complex.

According to a report from a panel of criminal justice expertscommissioned by the state, conservative estimates show about 200 innocent people are languishing in New Jersey prisons. Innocence groups contend the number is likely higher. But over the last 30 years, the state has seen just 37 exonerations, including four last year.

“Despite those statistics, and their tragic implications, New Jersey has not addressed them in a coordinated way,” the report found.

On the recommendation of the panel, overseen by by former state Supreme Court Justice Virginia Long and former U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman, Grewal on Thursday launched a “conviction review unit” in his office aimed at correcting the problem.

It will be led by Carolyn Murray, a former acting Essex County prosecutor who was appointed to a judgeship in 2017 and will step down to take on the new role.

Authorities said they’re partnering with innocence groups, including the Princeton-based Centurion, to screen cases and train staff. The new unit will have the authority to perform scientific testing and conduct new witness interviews, but the burden for the cases it takes on remains high.

For one, the unit will only accept claims of “actual innocence,” meaning it will focus on cases where the defendant claims they were completely innocent, and not cases where prisoners merely allege civil rights violations or other misconduct by police or prosecutors.

It will also only accept cases "once the petitioner has exhausted all appeals and post-conviction petitions " – a process that can take years, if not decades.

Conviction review units, sometimes called conviction integrity units, are slowly becoming more common in the U.S. as prosecutors and court systems increasingly acknowledge the causes of wrongful convictions, which can range from false confessions and police misconduct to faulty forensic science methods.

An independent review of the Kelley and Lee case found prosecutors in Passaic County did nothing when DNA evidence pointed to a potential new suspect, one of a series of missteps that kept the men behind bars, according to a copy of the report later obtained by NJ Advance Media.

Another New Jersey legal group, the Last Resort Exoneration Project, has raised similar claims about a pair of Camden men serving life sentences for a 1995 double murder, though the case does not involve DNA. Kevin Baker and Sean Washington were convicted largely on the testimony of a single eyewitness, and the legal group has gathered ballistics testing and other evidence contradicting the witness account.

Authorities in Camden County have fought every effort to reopen the case, and they’ve had help from the attorney general, whose office just last month filed a brief supporting prosecutors’ efforts to block the pair’s appeal.

A bill before the state Legislature creating an independent “Innocence Study and Review Commission” in New Jersey passed the state Senate in December but is still awaiting a vote in the Assembly. Its main sponsor, Sen. Joseph Pennacchio, R-Morris, said Thursday such a panel is still sorely needed.

“We cannot permanently address the crisis of wrongful conviction in New Jersey without codifying an innocence commission into law," Pennacchio said. “If the Legislature doesn’t act, the next administration could easily discontinue Attorney General Grewal’s work.”

Grewal said the new review unit, which is being partially funded by a $243,000 grant from the U.S. Justice Department, will be outside the traditional chain of prosecutors in the AG’s office, under the newly formed Office of Public Integrity and Accountability, which also investigates public corruption and police abuse.

He rejected the notion that there is an “inherent tension” with prosecutors handling the review of wrongful convictions, saying, “We’re making sure we’re getting it right.”

The former justice said the move will “eliminate the idea of bias” because the cases will no longer be reinvestigated by the same office that brought the charges, which is what happens in most jurisdictions around the country.

The review unit was announced in tandem with the creation of a new statewide “Cold Case Network,” which will coordinate existing efforts in New Jersey’s 21 county prosecutor’s offices and hundreds of police departments to solve cases that have remain unsolved for years.

The model for the network is the North Jersey Regional Cold Case Task Force, a three-county effort that just last week claimed to have solved a 14-year-old gunpoint rape case. Grewal said the new network will create such teams across the state, bolstered by help from the State Police’s cold case investigators.

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