Metro DA to start new squad to look into possible wrongful convictions, cold cases

GWINNETT COUNTY, Ga. — A local district attorney’s office is launching its own squad to look into possible past wrongful convictions.

While it’s normally outside groups digging hard into old cases looking for mistakes, the people who prosecute criminals in Gwinnett County say the time has come for their office to start taking a look.

It’s being called the Conviction Integrity Unit.

“Any ADA’s worst nightmare is to have someone who’s innocent convicted,” said Gwinnett County District Attorney Patsy Austin-Gatson.

Austin-Gatson said that’s why she’s launching the new unit.

Two senior assistant attorneys plus an investigator will look full time into past cases where an innocent person may have been locked up.

“Any cases you are currently looking at?” Channel 2′s Tony Thomas asked Austin-Gatson.

“Yes,” she replied.

“How many?” Thomas asked.

“No comment,” Austin-Gatson said.

Over the years across Georgia, there have been several people discovered to be innocent after spending years behind bars for crimes that evidence would later prove they didn’t commit.

Clarence Harrison is one of those people. He lost nearly 18 years after being convicted for a kidnapping and rape he didn’t commit.

“Seventeen years, 9 months and 26 days,” is how much time Harrison said he spent in jail.

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Prosecutors say some people have already contacted the new district attorney’s administration wanting a new investigation, and they expect additional letters and calls.

There will be an application process on the DA’s website.

“We will be able to weed out a lot of the cases just by reading the applications,” said Herbert Adams Jr. with the Gwinnett County DA’s Office.

Gwinnett prosecutors hope to find no new cases but say it something that can’t be ignored.

“Why now? Because I think our justice system has to take a turn where we give people the assurance we are here for justice, not just convictions,” Austin-Gatson said.

Thomas tried to press the district attorney a bit on just how many cases she might be talking about.

She would eventually say it’s just a couple and it’s not a high number, nor does she expect it ever will be.

Austin-Gatson also told Thomas that she is expanding the county’s cold case unit, putting two full-time investigators on those cases.

“If they have hit a stump where there is no further investigative things they haven’t done, if we take a fresh look at it, we may discover something,” Austin-Gatson said.

Erika Wilson is one of more than 170 mothers across Gwinnett County wondering who attacked, and in some cases killed, their children.

Her son Justin Gaines disappeared in 2007.

“I just wish someone would come forward and give us the right information,” Wilson said. “It’s hard to imagine people could know things for so long and not give us answers.”

Justin’s case is just one of the cold cases that the Gwinnett County DA’s office will potentially take another look at.

Chief investigator Curtis Clemons said sometimes all it takes is a fresh set of eyes.

“DNA is just one part of the investigation. Often times with cold cases there may have been witnesses that have been missed or never interviewed,” Clemons said.