Wrongful conviction requests are getting a second look

Posted at 5:03 PM, Jan 25, 2019
and last updated 2019-01-25 19:57:30-05

NASHVILLE, Tenn (WTVF) — Nashville is taking a deeper look into post convictions. The District Attorney's office conviction review unit is designed to make sure no one is sitting in prison wrongfully convicted.

The National Registry of Wrongful Convictions shows that the state of Tennessee has exonerated just over 25 inmates since 1989.

That's a loss of more than 230 years.

“The court system is designed to address it to a certain extent where mistakes are made, but sometimes when there's a claim on innocence we need to go a step further,” said Assistant District Attorney Robert Jones is leading a unit at the Nashville D.A.'s office to review convictions.

Out of more than three thousand district attorney offices nationwide there are just 35 conviction review units.

Jones says the units aren't designed to second guess a jury's decision or a court, but instead to be an extra set of eyes when new evidence is presented.

“We need to be able to look at old cases, especially where someone is claiming that they are wrongfully convicted,” said Jones.

The Nashville unit was created in December of 2016 as an eight-member assistant district attorney team.

But as of Friday, it will be a team of one with Jones screening, investigating and recommending the cases to District Attorney General Glenn Funk.

“At this time, we had 74 inmates that have asked that their case be review,” Jones said.

Cases like Joseph Webster's; he was convicted in 2005 for the 1998 murder of Leroy Owens, but after new testing Webster's DNA wasn't on the murder weapon and the only witness allegedly changed her story several times.

Like Webster, Jones will send the inmates an application to start the process of review.

So far, he has received 38 of those applications back.

“We had 21 that have gone through the process and we've sent them letters denying their request because we didn't feel that there was new credible evidence of a wrongful conviction,” said Jones.

In these past two years the unit hasn't reopened any cases so far, but Jones is actively looking at 17 cases.

The unit’s new protocols on how to apply and who to contact should be available early next week.

Joseph Webster's attorney, Daniel Horwitz sent Newschannel 5 this statement, “The Conviction Review Unit serves a critical role, and I applaud District Attorney Funk for announcing much-needed reforms that will finally allow it to function as intended. After years of waiting, Joseph Webster looks forward to receiving a meaningful review of his wrongful conviction.”