As we reported last week, the new DNA law – now known as M.G.L.C. 278A – will provide post-conviction access to DNA and testing for those who assert factual innocence. The new law not only provides access to DNA and testing but it also provides a roadmap for the preservation of evidence in cases. We wanted to know how case screenings and assignment of counsel will be handled with respect to the new law. We reached out to Lisa Kavanaugh, Program Director for the Committee for Public Counsel Services Innocence Program, and Gretchen Bennett, Executive Director at the New England Innocence Project, to learn more.
The CPCS Innocence Program and the New England Innocence Project (NEIP) are both supported by a grant from the Wrongful Conviction Review Program at the Bureau of Justice Assistance, a component of the Office of Justice Programs. The Office of Justice Programs works in partnership with the justice community on the federal, state, local and tribal level to identify the most pressing crime-related challenges confronting the justice system and providing information, training and innovative strategies for addressing these challenges. NEIP is also supported by generous private donations.
Under the new law, CPCS will receive requests from the courts and directly from inmates. Initial requests of this nature go to the CPCS Private Counsel Appellate Division, and if the request is found to be premised on a claim of innocence, the request is referred to the CPCS Innocence Program. Applicants are asked to complete a referral questionnaire before the case is then screened to determine whether it meets the criteria for the Innocence Program, and if so, counsel is assigned. There are over 700 attorneys who are certified to handle appeals or post-conviction matters at CPCS. Roughly 300 attorneys are considered “active” – attorneys that take at least one case assignment per year. In order to be certified to handle these appeals, the attorney must complete an application process, a certification process and specific training coordinated through CPCS.
NEIP is an independent, nonprofit organization that was founded in 2000 to assist persons convicted of crimes who claim factual innocence. Individuals seeking NEIP’s help must fill out a 26 page questionnaire to apply for assistance. Screenings of these cases are handled by professor-led law clinics at local law schools where students sift through the requests and make recommendations as to whether NEIP should move forward on a case. These recommendations are presented to the case review committee at NEIP, a group composed of law professors and expert attorneys with experience in prosecution or defense. If the case review committee decides that NEIP should accept the recommendation for representation, NEIP draws on its network of private law firms who take these cases on a pro bono basis. The most experienced appellate attorneys at these firms handle innocence issues for NEIP. Included in the network of firms that are getting ready now to move forward with innocence cases under the new law are BBA Sponsor Firms Goodwin Procter LLP and Skadden, Arps, Meagher & Flom LLP.
Thanks in part to the new law, NEIP has 10 cases ready to go forward.
Government Relations Director
Boston Bar Association