Denver district attorney to review cases for wrongful convictions and unjust sentences

Victoria Cisneros‘s workspace in the Denver District Attorney’s Office is already filling with boxes of old court files.

For the last five months, the prosecutor has been building the office’s new Conviction Review Unit. Already, she’s taken a handful of cases for review. Even before the unit’s public launch Wednesday, people convicted of crimes started sending her letters, pleading with her to look at their cases. That means lots of digging through dusty court records.

“The prison grapevine is strong and I’ve already started getting letters,” Cisneros said.

The new unit in the Denver District Attorney’s Office will allow people convicted of crimes in Denver’s courts to ask Cisneros to review their cases if they have evidence that they are innocent or if they believe they were too harshly punished under previous sentencing rules. The unit also will handle clemency requests that the governor’s office asks it to review. Cisneros and a full-time investigator will look at applications and decide whether they merit further scrutiny.

“We can all agree that we don’t want somebody sitting in prison for something they didn’t do,” Cisneros said. “Sentence review is definitely more of a touchy subject — and that’s OK — and we will see what happens. There are times where I think it will be appropriate.”

Denver District Attorney Beth McCann had wanted to establish a conviction review unit since she was elected but did not get the budget approved until last year, when the City Council authorized $227,900 for the two new positions.

“There is so much mistrust of the justice system right now… it’s important for prosecutors to do what we can to assure the public that we’re treating people fairly, equitably and justly,” McCann said. “This is just one piece of that.”

McCann is the fourth Colorado prosecutor to launch such a unit, which are becoming more common across the country. Without such processes it is difficult — and sometimes expensive — for people to appeal their convictions and sentences through the courts.

McCann receives letters often from people who believe their sentence is disproportionate to their crime, but her office has rarely acted on them.

She hopes Cisneros will be able to look at more sentences like the one given to Marion Jetton, who was sentenced to 96 years in prison under Colorado’s habitual criminal laws for stealing about $8,000 while leading a theft and forgery ring. McCann in 2017 helped get his sentence reduced to 24 years.

“Ninety-six years — I mean he was going to die in prison for an $8,000 forgery,” McCann said. “It seemed excessive.”

Jetton now works as a truck driver in California, McCann said. He sends her a Christmas card every year.

Each case Cisneros accepted will require a lengthy, painstaking review, Cisneros said. She and the investigator might have to track down witnesses from 30-year-old cases, retired police officers and prosecutors who handled those cases. They’ll also have to dig through old paper records and figure out what evidence is still in law enforcement’s possession.

She’s not sure how many cases she’ll be able to handle in a year. Since January, she’s already taken on seven claims of innocence and five requests for sentence reviews, and will look at 20 clemency cases.

“Now with this full announcement, I expect that to double,” she said.

Cisneros will prioritize people who are currently in prison on felonies and who were convicted at trial. People do not need a lawyer to apply, Cisneros said. The unit will not accept applications for sentence review for sexual assault convictions due to the state’s indeterminate prison terms in such cases.

All three of the other conviction review units in Colorado have been established in the last five years. The Boulder County District Attorney’s Office created the first unit in Colorado in 2018, the 18th Judicial District Attorney’s Office set one up in 2019 and the First Judicial District Attorney’s Office followed in 2021.

While the programs in Boulder and in the 18th Judicial District only look at cases where a person may be innocent, the office in the First Judicial District was the first in the state to also review sentences that may be too lengthy and also the first to devote full-time staff to the endeavor.

The First Judicial District Attorney’s Office received a flood of applications after announcing its program in 2021, said Jenn Kilpatrick, the office’s director of conviction integrity and equity. The office has received about 200 requests so far and has taken action on seven cases. Referrals have come from people in prison, their loved ones, the court, defense attorneys and even law enforcement, she said. The oldest date to the mid-1990s.

“There’s not a shortage of work,” Kilpatrick said.

The work is going to require difficult conversations, Cisneros said. She will have to confront people in her own office about possible mistakes. She’ll have to talk with victims of crime about having an offender’s sentence reduced, or that the person convicted might not be the offender at all.

“We’re very cognizant that any time you look at a case that’s already been completed, there is the potential to retraumatize the victims and also the prosecutors, possibly the police officers,” McCann said. “It’s a very serious undertaking and one that we don’t take lightly.”

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