NJ launches 2 programs to free the innocent and solve cold cases
Two new initiatives are being launched to promote public safety and trust in New Jersey’s criminal justice system.
During a news conference in Trenton on Thursday, state Attorney General Gurbir Grewal announced that a statewide Conviction Review Unit will review prisoners' claims of innocence. And a stateside Cold Case Network will pool personnel, expertise and technology on long-unsolved cases.
“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," Grewal said.
“We see these two programs as two sides of the same coin, with the shared commitment to finding out the truth and ensuring that justice is done in each and every case.”
Former state Supreme Court Justice Virginia Long, who led a panel that reviewed whether the Attorney General’s Office should create a Conviction Review Unit and a Cold Case Network, said there is a strong need for these programs.
“We know from studies that we can estimate from 1% to 5% of all incarcerated individuals have been wrongly convicted, and for rapes and rape-murders the number is much higher," she said Thursday.
Grewal said to ensure its independence, the Conviction Review Unit will be housed within the Office of Public Integrity and Accountability, outside the reach of state and country prosecutors.
The Cold Case Network will be tasked with investigating any cases where the Conviction Review Unit concluded that a defendant was wrongly convicted.
The Cold Case Network will involve a system of regional task forces modeled on the North Jersey Regional Cold Case Task Force, which recently solved two cold case murders and a sexual assault case.
The units will be staffed by prosecutors, state troopers and municipal police officers.
Grewal also pointed out “this is the first time that a state attorney general’s office has created a Conviction Review Unit with true statewide jurisdiction, and we’re committed to getting it right.”
He explained the Unit will only accept claims of innocence once the petitioner has exhausted all appeals and post-conviction petitions. Grewal said this will allow investigators to focus on claims of wrongful conviction by those for whom the Conviction Review Unit is the only remaining avenue of redress.
A $243,000 U.S. Department of Justice grant will be used to get the Conviction Review Unit up and running.
Grewal announced former Essex County Superior Court Judge Carolyn Murray will serve as the director of the Conviction Review Unit.
Former U.S. Attorney for New Jersey Paul Fishman worked with Long on the panel that reviewed whether the Unit and the Network should be created.