State’s first-ever Conviction Review Unit to begin receiving applications

Keith Ellison
Photo by Lorie Shaull Keith Ellison

Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison announced this week that the first-ever Conviction Review Unit (CRU) in Minnesota will begin accepting applications to review potentially wrongful convictions.

In June 2021, the CRU Advisory Board ratified one of the most expansive charters of a conviction review unit in the United States. It sets forth the guiding principles and governing policies the CRU.

“The prosecutor’s job is not to exact the greatest possible punishment. It is not to win at all costs. The prosecutor’s job is to be a minister of justice,” said Attorney General Keith Ellison.  “We strive for perfection but know our system is imperfect. We will fearlessly review cases to make sure justice was served, and if not, to right those wrongs. Prosecutions, where justice is not served, hurt everyone and benefit no one except the true perpetrator.”

“Since the Great North Innocence Project’s discussions about forming this CRU began with the Attorney General’s Office in 2019, we have been working hard to bring the program to this exciting point,” said Sara Jones, Executive Director of the Great North Innocence Project. “We see this as an innovative addition to our own existing work to free wrongfully convicted people and improve the justice system to prevent wrongful convictions. With a collaboratively-created charter and a nationally-renowned director in place, we are confident that the Minnesota CRU is setting the standard for this kind of cooperative approach to the goal of accomplishing justice.” 

“The Minnesota Attorney General’s Office is on the cutting-edge of Conviction Review Units in the United States,” said Marissa Bluestine assistant director of the Quattrone Center for the Fair Administration of Justice at the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School. “Not only are they embracing a holistic, collaborative approach to re-examining convictions, they are committed to learning from past errors to prevent injustices in the future. They are setting a national model for prosecutors committed to ensuring the integrity of convictions.” 

Attorney General Ellison announced the hiring of the CRU director Carrie Sperling. As CRU director, Sperling will lead case investigations and ultimately make a recommendation in each case to the attorney general. She will also work to identify recurring errors and make recommendations for improved policies and procedures within the criminal justice system to help avoid wrongful convictions.

Carrie Sperling started as the CRU Director on April 1. She has spent the past two decades studying, teaching, and correcting wrongful convictions. As a clinical professor at the University of Wisconsin Law School and at Arizona State’s Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law, Sperling led collaborative efforts to overturn wrongful convictions and cases of manifest injustice.

Recently, the Clinical Legal Education Association awarded Sperling, and her Wisconsin Innocence Project students, an honorable mention for their work in overturning the murder convictions against a married couple in Georgia.

As the director of the Arizona Justice Project, Sperling played a leading role in a first-of-its-kind partnership between the Project and the Arizona Attorney General’s Office. This collaboration provided DNA testing to all Arizona inmates convicted of serious crimes who presented colorable innocence claims. 

“No one benefits from a wrongful conviction but the true perpetrator. Prosecutors have a continuing obligation to ensure that justice is done, and this Conviction Review Unit will play an integral role in pursuit of this goal,” said Sperling. “It’s not enough to overturn a wrongful conviction. We must learn what went wrong and how to correct our mistakes in the future. I’m eager to use the tools of this Conviction Review Unit to guide future policies and make our criminal justice system more accurate, fair, and equitable for the people of Minnesota.”

Background

In October 2020, Attorney General Ellison and the Great North Innocence Project (formerly known as the Innocence Project of Minnesota) announced that the U.S. Department of Justice had awarded the Great North Innocence Project a $300,000 grant to fund the creation of a Conviction Review Unit in partnership with the Attorney General’s office. The CRU, which will operate as part of the Attorney General’s Office, will allow the state to review legal cases for people believed to be innocent. While there are dozens of CRUs across the country, Minnesota’s is only the fourth in the country that operates on a state-wide basis through an Attorney General’s Office.

The purpose of a CRU is to identify, remedy, and prevent wrongful convictions. Each case the CRU accepts for review will have a strong indication that the person imprisoned could be innocent of the crime for which they were convicted. Minnesota’s CRU also will develop policy proposals to address the most frequently identified causes of wrongful convictions and, when possible, identify the person or people who actually committed the crime.

Ellison announced the 17 members of The Conviction Review Advisory Board. It is comprised of leading criminal-justice experts, including former Minnesota Supreme Court Justice Paul Anderson; Mark Osler, professor at University of St. Thomas Law School; crime survivors advocate and Safe Harbor Director at the Minnesota Department of Health, Caroline Palmer;  and former Minneapolis NAACP President Leslie Redmond. The Advisory Board also includes Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman and Ramsey County Attorney John Choi, who supported the application for the federal funding that created the unit. 

How to apply

Individuals may apply for a review of their case by requesting an application from the Attorney General’s Office by emailing CRUinfo@ag.state.mn.us; by calling 651-296-3353; and by mailing the Office of Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison, Attn.: Conviction Review Unit, 445 Minnesota Street, Suite 1400, St. Paul, MN 55101. 

Additionally, applications will be available at all Minnesota Department of Corrections facilities. Applicants may request the application through the Transitions Resource Center, library, or case manager.

Friends or family members may help applicants complete the CRU application, but applicants must review and sign the application themselves. Individuals who believe an applicant is incapable of completing an application are encouraged to contact the CRU to make special arrangements to assist the applicant. 

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