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May 28, 2024

Central District responds to dearth of post-conviction review requests

U.S. Attorney E. Martin Estrada has issued a call for defense attorneys to help identify cases suitable for post-conviction review by the Conviction Integrity Committee.

E. Martin Estrada, U.S. attorney for Central District of California

The U.S. attorney for the Central District of California called on defense attorneys to submit cases ripe for post-conviction review to its Conviction Integrity Committee following a lack of suitable applications. The committee was established in 2023 to review claims of factual innocence filed by convicted individuals.

U.S. Attorney E. Martin Estrada said in a phone interview Friday that he sent the request in a letter to the Central District Federal Public Defender's office. "The request is to defense counsel, in general, that practice before the federal courts," he said. "What prompted this is the work we've been doing here in post-conviction review ... but the fact of the matter is, we need the applications to be filed in order to do this work."

Last March, Estrada established the Conviction Integrity Committee, which he spearheads along with his office's chief of ethics and post-conviction review. The committee reviews and considers innocence claims brought by defendants convicted in the Central District.

The letter, issued May 22, calls upon defense attorneys to "identify appropriate candidates for pardons or commutations and bring those candidates to our attention."

According to Estrada, since the committee's creation last year, only a handful of pardon and commutation applications his office deemed valid are actively pending at the White House. Valid candidates mostly involve non-violent convicts who are serving sentences longer than they would be under current law, he said.

"I don't have an exact number, but I'd say anywhere from five to seven or eight, is my best recollection. There are only so many applications we get. There aren't that many we receive because there needs to be a filled-out application form put forth with information and evidence. ... We do a deep dive into these. We don't just look at the document."

Estrada said an important factor that goes into whether his office moves forward with a candidate's potential application depends on the type of crime the person got convicted of and how they behaved while at the Bureau of Prisons.

"We don't recommend pardon application on all the applications. We deal with some pretty dangerous individuals such as members of powerful prison gangs, organized crime leaders, cartel members ... We've recommended against accommodations for many such applicants," Estrada said. "We've gotten applications from murderers, and we've declined and recommended no commutation in those instances. But there are categories of individuals who are not violent ... where we think this type of relief is appropriate."

For the applications that have been recommended by his office, Estrada said the cases often revolve around drug offenders.

"The general category we're seeing where we're making these recommendations are those individuals who are sentenced to terms of imprisonment much longer than what they would be today under changes in the statutes and sentencing guidelines. Often those are drug offenders ... We feel it's important as a matter of fairness to recommend commutation where someone is serving a sentence much longer than what they would receive today."

The current chief of ethics and post-conviction review is Allison Westfahl Kong. However, Estrada said he'll be selecting a new chief in the coming weeks as Kong was named to the Los Angeles County Superior Court by Gov. Gavin Newsom earlier this month.


Devon Belcher

Daily Journal Staff Writer

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