The recent exonerations of Eric Kelley and Ralph Lee for a 1993 robbery and murder in Paterson, New Jersey have sparked serious concerns from Attorney General Gurbir Grewal who has decided to take over the investigation from Passaic County Prosecutors. The wrongful convictions of both Kelley and Lee, which were overturned based on new DNA evidence pointing to another man who committed a similar crime, have moved Grewal to consider statewide reforms that would improve how the criminal justice system responds to wrongful convictions in the state. He has also called on Supreme Court Chief Justice James Zazzali to independently review how prosecutors managed Kelley and Lee’s case. The prosecutors defended the convictions of Kelley and Lee rather, yet failed to investigate the man identified by the DNA testing.
“We’re going to supersede the investigation … to ensure public confidence in light of the criticism that has been leveled and the coverage of the matter,” said Attorney General Grewal.
The proposed reforms Grewal has decided to pursue include creating a conviction review unit to examine wrongful conviction claims and help prevent innocent people like Kelley and Lee from losing decades of their lives behind bars. Both men continued to fight a relentless prosecution, even after DNA evidence was presented in court, which should have served as the ending to almost 25 years of horror they endured.
Although conviction review units are increasing, they are still not a commonality, with only 29 throughout the U.S. according to a 2016 study by the National Registry of Exonerations. The NJ proposal would be the first statewide unit, whereas most others are locally based in district attorney offices. Former Supreme Court Justice Virginia Long will head the panel to determine the establishment of a NJ conviction review unit.
Vanessa Potkin, the Director of post-conviction litigation at the Innocence Project who represented Eric Kelley was pleased to hear the Attorney General’s plans, “This move kind of exemplifies exactly the job of the prosecutor: to ensure that justice is done, and not just to maintain convictions.”
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