PHILADELPHIA—In the 24 years former inmate Shaurn Thomas spent trying to convince others of his innocence, he maintained that “the justice system was going to prevail sooner or later, and that somebody would hear my cries.” Letters he’d written claiming he wasn’t involved in a 1990 murder convinced local lawyers to offer their help, but Thomas wouldn’t have gone free without the assistance of the Philadelphia district attorney’s office—the same one that put him behind bars.
For eight years, his two-person legal team had gained little traction arguing that on the day of the murder, Thomas, then 16, was at a youth detention center for an unrelated matter. “Basically, the courts did not listen to us,” said one of the two lawyers, Jim Figorski of the firm Dechert LLP. The tipping point came when the “conviction review unit” at the DA’s office stepped in last year. “They finally sat down and gave us a forum, whereas nobody [else] did,” Figorski said.
Known as the CRU, the group is tasked with reviewing and reinvestigating old cases when the inmates involved have a plausible claim of innocence. Since the mid-2000s, a relatively small but growing number of state and local prosecutors’ offices have created units like this one, using them as a mechanism for internal review—much like the Department of Justice’s Office of Professional Responsibility works for federal prosecutors. CRUs have the power to exonerate a person, or to determine that he or she deserves another chance in court. Through their work, CRUs seem to reject the notion that it’s the job of advocates and activists to speak truth to power in the criminal-justice system; with CRUs, those in power are checking themselves.