March 24th, 2019

A SECOND OPINION, The Kansas City Star


A letter from law enforcement agencies in Wyandotte County opposed to District Attorney Mark Dupree’s request for money to establish a conviction integrity unit missed the mark.

The unit would study claims of innocence, prosecutorial misconduct and law enforcement error. Dupree’s office has already identified 19 cases that warrant additional scrutiny.

As one concerned citizen rightly asked: Why would any honest, compassionate person not want wrongly convicted people released?

Kansas City, Kan., Police Chief Terry Zeigler, Wyandotte County Sheriff Donald Ash and two representatives from the Fraternal Order of Police oppose the unit.

In a letter to Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt, the group wrote that the unit is a “clear deviation from the criminal justice system’s handling of manifest injustice claims” under state law.

The letter also asserts that a mishandled integrity unit case could harm the state economically after Kansas lawmakers passed a bill to compensate the wrongfully convicted. Public safety also could be at risk, they argued.

Those statements are misleading.

“Every single part of that letter is disturbing,” said Tricia Bushnell, executive director of the Midwest Innocence Project.

A Wyandotte County conviction integrity unit would build community confidence in the justice system.

The wrongfully convicted are a part of a system that has oppressed many in Wyandotte County for decades, Bushnell said. And that needs to be fixed. One essential step is to overturn wrongful convictions and to right those miscarriages of justice.

Dupree, the county’s top law enforcement official, is acting within the scope of his duties to examine errors and misconduct and ensure that every citizen is treated fairly, Bushnell said.

“And that’s why the letter (to Schmidt) was so disappointing,” she said.

Dupree is confident — as he should be — that the unit would adhere to Kansas law in its review of cases. Why would police agencies in Wyandotte County be against it?

Shouldn’t law enforcement support Dupree? To publicly challenge a county prosecutor trying to improve a system that unfairly targets and incarcerates people of color and other minorities is out of step with progressive public policy.

Conviction integrity units have been successful across the country. There is a need for one in Wyandotte and other metro-area counties.

Those units and other organizations such as the Midwest Innocence Project were credited with more than half the 139 exonerations in 2017, according to the National Registry of Exonerations.

A prosecutor’s job does not end with a conviction. Part of Dupree’s duty is to see that justice is done. A conviction integrity unit would help.

The ugly truth of the American criminal justice system is wrongful convictions erode the public’s faith in the process. And exonerations play an integral part in restoring trust.

It seems law enforcement officials are asking Dupree to turn a blind eye to possible innocence cases. And that’s disconcerting.

Perhaps Dupree, who grew up in Kansas City, Kan., said it best: “People are scared of the past. But I say we need exposure on what was done.”

Creating a conviction integrity unit in Wyandotte County would be a start.

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Shelter-Jose Lara