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Franklin County Prosecutor’s office implementing new program for wrongful convictions

Franklin County Courthouse
Adora Namigadde

People who believe they were wrongfully convicted of a crime will be able to appeal to the Franklin County prosecutor’s office for potential relief, under a new program funded Tuesday by county commissioners and a federal Department of Justice grant.

The county office is implementing a conviction integrity unit to review the cases of applicants, becoming one of a growing number of such departments across the country as activists push for equity in the justice system.

Fred Strahorn, former state representative and state senator who has worked on justice reform in the past, said programs to overturn wrongful convictions can set new standards for prosecutors.

“Let’s not make how many convictions you get the standard of success. It is more about getting it right. Because if you take a person’s life, or you take 20 or 25 years away from a person, you can’t fix that,” he said.

Strahorn said by having new checks and balances in place, there will be more accountability for prosecutors and more safeguards for people charged with crimes.

“If you know going in that there is that kind of accountability, it makes you work harder to get it right the first time,” Strahorn said.

Kayla Merchant, public information officer for Franklin County Prosecutor G. Gary Tyack, said the program is a priority for the prosecutor because of the severe consequences of wrongful conviction.

“I don’t think you can put any type of price tag or anything of that nature whenever it comes to somebody’s freedom and justice,” she said.

But the program shouldn’t be seen as an attack on the records of prosecutors, Merchant said.

“Prosecutors aren’t here just to prosecute people. They’re here because they want justice. And I think at the end of the day, that is what we all want, is justice. (Conviction integrity units) really serve as a check and a balance.”

A federal Department of Justice grant is providing $550,000 over a three-year period. A new attorney and an investigator will be hired to staff the program.

Merchant said the program was developed after staff thoroughly researched other units across the country. The unit is expected to start accepting cases for review in the fall during a “soft open,” but the program isn’t expected to fully take off until 2023.

“Now we’ve got our roadmap, and it is just a matter of time putting all the building blocks in place,” Merchant said.

A search is expected to begin soon to find the right attorney to head the unit, Merchant said.

Those who believe their case should be reviewed can follow program updates on the Franklin County Prosecutor’s website and social media pages.

Renee Fox is a reporter for 89.7 NPR News.