Shelby County District Attorney Steve Mulroy chose the National Civil Rights Museum as a backdrop to announce that applications are now being accepted for a new Justice Review Unit (JRU).
Mulroy first promoted a post-conviction review mechanism in late October as a way of identifying and correcting wrongful convictions and sentences.
The optics of Thursday’s JRU announcement amplified Mulroy’s acknowledgment that “black and brown” people are disproportionately convicted of crimes but represent a very small percentage of the American population.
“I was committed to getting our new unit up and running as quickly as possible,” said Mulroy. “We all know that our criminal justice system is imperfect.
“When we correct injustices, we will begin to restore confidence in the fairness of our system. The community will then, I believe, cooperate more with law enforcement to fight crime.”
Lorna McClusky, a veteran defense attorney, will lead Shelby County’s JRU as chief, with Robert Gowen, another experienced defense attorney, serving as deputy chief.
Incarcerated individuals can apply now to have their convictions reviewed by the new JRU, the second in Tennessee. Each case accepted for review would be determined to have some probable evidence that the person convicted and imprisoned may actually be innocent.
While the creation of such review boards by prosecuting offices across the country has vocal critics, others applaud them as innovative and forward-thinking.
According to the Quattrone Center for the Fair Administration of Justice, there are 105 such units in the U.S.
Quattrone acts as a research and policy hub to improve fairness and accuracy in the justice system. Housed within the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School, the center makes recommendations on the best ways to address systemic issues that lead to wrongful conviction, including race.
Mulroy said the review unit would not only look at cases for potentially wrongful convictions, but also excessive sentencing that has kept some locked up far longer than what is fair, particularly people of color and impoverished individuals.
“During my campaign, I promised to increase diversity among prosecutors, re-prioritize violent crime, and establish a conviction review unit to attack wrongful convictions, and much more,” said Mulroy. “I am gratified that I have been able to deliver on these campaign promises so far, and look forward to fulfilling more in the next few months.”
The Davidson County District Attorney’s office established its unit in 2016. Six convictions have been vacated for incarcerated individuals determined to have been innocent of the charges that led to them being jailed.
“The Justice Review Unit gets us closer to equal justice for everyone in Shelby County,” said Mulroy. “Working together, we can effect transformational change in Shelby County’s criminal justice system.
On hand for Thursday’s detailing of the Shelby County Justice Review Unit was Dr. William E. Arnold Jr. Sentenced to 25 years in jail for a sexual assault, Arnold was exonerated in 2018 after being locked up for six years, nine months. He gained his freedom in April 2020 based upon the work of the Nashville-based review unit.
The Memphis JRU now is up and running thanks in part to a working group focused on post-conviction justice as an element of an external transition team set up by Mulroy.
Arnold — a Memphian — was the first person freed through the Nashville review unit. He led that Mulroy working group.
View Arnold’s TedX Memphis talk