People wrongly convicted of crimes in Pennsylvania have a new source of hope, after Attorney General Josh Shapiro announced Wednesday that his office has created a new, statewide Conviction Integrity Unit.
“Our focus will be to collaborate with Pennsylvania counties lacking the necessary resources to properly revisit and analyze past convictions,” Shapiro said in a statement.
He appointed Lisa Lazzari-Strasiser, a former public defender who more recently served as Somerset County district attorney, to lead the unit. He did not indicate how many additional staff would be assigned to the unit or whether the work of reviewing cases had begun.
A statewide program will be valuable since almost all conviction-review units are run out of district attorney’s offices in large urban areas, said John Hollway, of the University of Pennsylvania’s Quattrone Center for the Fair Administration of Justice.
“It raises a question about how plausible claims of actual innocence are going to be handled in offices that might only have one, two, or three assistant district attorneys,” Hollway said, noting that three-quarters of DA’s offices nationwide are small offices with an average of four attorneys. “It’s unrealistic to think that an office that thinly staffed is going to have the capacity to dedicate somebody to these types of cases.”
In Philadelphia, a dozen people have been exonerated by the Conviction Integrity Unit established by District Attorney Larry Krasner in 2018. It remains the only such county-specific unit in Pennsylvania.
Hollway said there could be jurisdictional challenges to the Shapiro’s initiative. It’s not yet clear whether the attorney general would rely on counties to refer cases for review, or how it would elicit support from county prosecutors who might be reluctant to reopen old convictions.
Lindsay Vaughan, executive director of the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association, said the group’s executive committee had not yet been briefed but will meet with Lazzari-Strasiser this week.
“At that time, we expect to begin to hear more details and formally start the conversation on what the unit is, how it will work, what our role will be, and the complex jurisdictional issues it presents,” Vaughan said.
But area prosecutors said they were open to the idea.
“We are currently exploring referring appropriate cases prosecuted by our office for review by that Unit,” Delaware County District Attorney Jack Stollsteimer said in an email.
Bucks County District Attorney Matthew Weintraub did not indicate that he planned to refer cases but said in a statement that he supports the concept.