State Attorney General Gurbir Grewal could soon announce plans to create a new “conviction review unit” that would examine claims of innocence by individuals convicted of serious crimes in New Jersey.

Last spring, Grewal's office convened a panel to examine whether such a unit should be formed after two men — Eric Kelley and Ralph Lee, who were convicted in 1996 of killing a video store worker — had their convictions overturned in 2017 as a result of DNA evidence.

Vanessa Potkin, the director of post-conviction litigation at the Innocence Project, who worked for nine years to have Kelley's conviction overturned, said creating such a unit would be a major step forward.

"Prison is an awful place and just imagine being there when you’re actually innocent and being there for decades," she said. "But also there’s a huge public safety factor because if the wrong person is in prison then the right person has not been prosecuted.”

She said sometimes, even when DNA evidence is presented that clears someone of committing a crime, prosecutors may appeal the finding in court for several years.

Paul Casteleiro of Centurion, Ralph Lee, Eric Kelley, and Vanessa Potkin of the Innocence Project.
Paul Casteleiro of Centurion, Ralph Lee, Eric Kelley, and Vanessa Potkin of the Innocence Project.

Potkin said the job of a prosecutor is to seek justice and the truth, but some prosecutors lose sight of this because in our criminal justice system, “you’re rewarded by winning trials and obtaining convictions.”

She believes we need to change the incentives that are built into the criminal justice system.

“In many prosecutor’s offices, you get promoted by winning cases, not by dismissing cases because you don’t think there’s enough evidence to go forward.”

She said the incentives that should be embraced by the system are using sound science to uncover the truth in order to determine what really happened in a case.

“Many times wrongful convictions aren’t innocent mistakes but they are the culmination of many missteps and oftentimes misconduct," she said.

Since 1989, there have been 37 cases in New Jersey where someone convicted of a serious crime was proven to have been innocent and had their conviction overturned. Nationally, the number is 2,296.

The Innocence Project has about 5,000 requests from inmates to have their cases reviewed, including a few hundred from New Jersey.

The Innocence Project reviews cases by looking at past police reports and reading trial transcripts.

She noted most of the cases that are taken on by the Innocence Project are ones where DNA evidence was obtained at the crime scene but it’s estimated that less than 10 percent of violence crimes have any DNA.