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Penn Law’s Quattrone Center leads Philadelphia Event Review Team in analysis of wrongful conviction

April 09, 2019

In a first-of-its-kind initiative, Penn Law’s Quattrone Center for the Fair Administration of Justice has coordinated with the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office, the Philadelphia Police Department, the First Judicial District Courts of Pennsylvania, and the Defender Association of Philadelphia to form the Philadelphia Event Review Team (PERT), an ongoing voluntary inter-organizational partnership that seeks to improve the fairness and accuracy of the criminal justice system. This unique collaboration takes a systemwide approach to examining errors in criminal justice by investigating cases that have resulted in unintended outcomes, particularly wrongful convictions.

“Typically, police and prosecutors maintain an adversarial relationship with defense counsel. It is, indeed, extremely rare for the two sides to collaborate on a cooperative project like the PERT. However, the Philadelphia Police Department does not believe in engaging in a particular course of action simply because it is a familiar path,” said Philadelphia Police Department Commissioner Richard Ross. “That bold position is embodied in our commitment to the PERT. With the help of the Quattrone Center, all stakeholders are able to convene in order to pursue better outcomes and the common goal of true justice for all persons.”

PERT has released its second report, which details the results of a comprehensive root cause analysis of the case of George Cortez, who was wrongfully convicted of murder and aggravated assault in 2012. In 2015, after several evidentiary issues with his trial came to light, Cortez’s convictions were vacated and he was granted a new trial. The charges against him were ultimately dropped in 2016 after another individual confessed to the shooting.

The Quattrone Center led the PERT through a thorough review of all aspects of Cortez’s case, from investigation through exoneration, using principles of sentinel event reviews and root cause analysis. Through the review process, the agencies developed a consensus understanding of what went wrong in the Cortez investigation and prosecution. The PERT’s report includes specific recommendations devised to help ensure the mistakes that led to Cortez’s wrongful conviction do not recur in the future.  

The group’s recommendations span all participants in the system, from investigation through case adjudication and appeal, and include proposed improvements to:

  • Eyewitness identification procedures;
  • Recordkeeping around investigations and discovery;
  • Support for open technology platforms in courtrooms; and
  • Improved awareness of expert testimony in digital media.

“Adapting this method of investigation to determine what went wrong in a Criminal prosecution creates an exciting new tool for analyzing errors,” said former Philadelphia Common Pleas Court Judge Carolyn Temin, first assistant to Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner. “Being able to work cooperatively with our Criminal Justice partners to restructure the system to avoid these errors in the future was extremely satisfying. I look forward to participating in the next project.”

“True criminal justice reform isn’t just about policy; it’s about changing our practices and developing shared understandings,” said Keir Bradford-Grey, Chief Defender of the Defender Association of Philadelphia. “The PERT partnership brings justice partners together to examine the practices that contribute to inaccuracies in our system that can lead to devastating consequences for individuals and families. Wrongful convictions are also a threat to the community and reduce public safety. The Defender Association values this opportunity to join the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office, the Philadelphia Police Department, and the First Judicial District Courts in efforts to create better outcomes for people in our criminal justice system.” 

A copy of the full report can be found here.

“It’s really exciting that so many criminal justice stakeholders have come together in partnership to see what we can learn from cases where things don’t turn out the way they should, and how we can use those learnings to make Philadelphia’s criminal justice system more reliable and more just,” said Quattrone Center Executive Director and Penn Law Associate Dean John Hollway.  “The DA’s Office, Police Department, Defender Association, and Courts of Common Pleas are all putting our community first and gathering new information that improves the criminal justice system’s accuracy and reliability. We are indebted to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Assistance for helping to fund this important work.”

The Quattrone Center for the Fair Administration of Justice at the University of Pennsylvania Law School is a nonpartisan, national research and policy hub producing and disseminating research designed to prevent errors in the criminal justice system. As part of its mission, the Quattrone Center collaborates with stakeholders within the criminal justice system in cities across the United States to conduct event reviews and devise solutions to avoid future errors. Most recently, the Center worked with stakeholders in Baltimore to analyze a separate instance of wrongful conviction and develop recommendations based upon the findings.