Attorney General Josh Shapiro announces statewide office to review old cases

Lisa Lazzari-Strasiser, head of Pennsylvania's statewide Conviction Integrity Unit, and Attorney General Josh Shapiro. Source: Pennsylvania Office of the Attorney General.

Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro has announced the creation of a new, statewide office that will offer justice to people wrongfully convicted of crimes. 

The new Conviction Integrity Unit will work with local law enforcement officials and prosecutors — especially in small counties — to reevaluate cases that ended with dubious convictions. 

Investigators will also “pursue corrections” for individuals who were wrongfully or unfairly convicted, according to the Attorney General’s website.

“We’re striving for justice, not for cases we’re dealing with today and tomorrow, but the cases we dealt with yesterday,” Shapiro said in a video announcement released Wednesday.

Shapiro has appointed Lisa Lazzari-Strasiser, the former elected district attorney of Somerset County, and a one-time public defender, to lead the new unit.

Shapiro said Lazzari-Strasiser brings “unique experience serving in a system we both agree is in need of reform.”

Conviction integrity units have proliferated in recent years amid a nationwide effort to reduce prison populations and redress past wrongs of the criminal justice system. They’re a popular tool among a crop of recently elected progressive prosecutors, who want to use their offices to reduce incarceration. 

The only other Conviction Integrity Unit in Pennsylvania, founded in 2014 in Philadelphia, has exonerated 13 defendants, according to a database maintained by the National Registry of Exonerations at the University of Michigan School of Law. 

Most conviction integrity units are located in county prosecutors offices. Only two other states — New Jersey and Michigan — run such offices at the state level, data from the registry show.

Barbara O’Brien, editor of the National Registry of Exonerations, said it’s “too early to tell” if statewide units are more effective than those run by counties. 

But she said a statewide model does provide a measure of objectivity, which can be difficult for county prosecutors to match when they’re asked to examine the work of their colleagues or predecessors. 

“You get a little removal from the people who made the original decisions,” O’Brien said. “The independence of the office is incredibly important.”

Shapiro’s new initiative will require the cooperation of Pennsylvania’s county district attorneys, who prosecute the vast majority of criminal cases in the Commonwealth.

But a spokeswoman for that group said Wednesday that they didn’t have much information about the new unit beyond what Shapiro announced publicly.

Lindsay Vaughn, executive director of the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association, said Lazzari-Strasiser is scheduled to meet with members of the statewide group later this week. 

At that point, Vaughn said, “we expect to begin to hear more details and formally start the conversation on what the unit is, how it will work, what our role will be, and the complex jurisdictional issues it presents.”

Attorney Nilam Sanghvi has worked extensively with county prosecutors to reexamine cases and overturn wrongful convictions as the legal director of the Pennsylvania Innocence Project, a Philadelphia-based legal organization.

She said she was heartened by Shapiro’s announcement, even though it “remains a little unclear” if her organization could bring cases directly to the statewide office, or if they would have to secure permission from a county prosecutor first.

But Sanghvi said the new initiative could be a boon to small counties that don’t have the manpower to reexamine old cases themselves. 

“It could be a great fit [for those cases] and I’m curious to see how the mechanics work out,” Sanghvi said.