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Pro Se Review Project: Partnership with Philadelphia’s Conviction Integrity Unit to Identify and Provide Pro Bono Advocacy for Wrongfully Convicted Individuals Without Counsel

Award Information

Award #
Funding Category
Competitive Discretionary
Congressional District
Funding First Awarded
Total funding (to date)

Description of original award (Fiscal Year 2023, $531,597)

Phillips Black (PB) seeks to continue and expand its partnership with the CIU of the Philadelphia DA’s office in advocating for wrongfully convicted individuals without counsel. Philadelphia has sentenced more individuals to LWOP than any county, 85% are Black, and 50% were sentenced under the age of 25. In 2017, Philadelphia resoundingly elected DA Larry Krasner, who pledged to address racist policies and practices by law enforcement and prior administrations. The following year, the DA created a robust CIU. Immediately, the CIU encountered systemic roadblocks, which disproportionately burden individuals who cannot afford counsel. First, legislation precludes ADAs from initiating actions to correct wrongful convictions, and professional ethics prevent ADAs from advising petitioners. Second, an entrenched system of under-resourced defense has led to a dearth of competent pro-bono counsel. Third, a hostile judiciary has been resistant to the CIU’s model of review and accountability.

To address these issues, in 2021, the CIU entered into a partnership with Phillips Black, Inc., a 501(c)(3) non-profit post-conviction law office. Founded in 2014, PB practitioners are nationally recognized experts in complex post-conviction procedure, litigators, and educators with institutional relationships at several law schools.

Governed by an MOU that strictly guards against conflicts of interest, impropriety, and the appearance thereof, the project piloted a new, collaborative model to address Philadelphia’s significant history of wrongful convictions. The goal was to identify and strategically litigate wrongful convictions of unrepresented persons, while adhering to legal and ethical separations and privileges. Through the pilot, PB has provided pro-bono representation to pro se petitioners and offered legal education and support around complex procedural issues and indicators of wrongful convictions.

PB’s team includes as core members apprentices who are returning citizens who were themselves wrongfully convicted and became legal experts in prison. Their lived experience is critical to PB’s advocacy and commitment to shifting power back to those who have been directly impacted by the legal system. PB also works closely with the only post-conviction participatory defense hub in the country. This relationship is critical to education campaigns around the causal factors of wrongful convictions, navigating incompetent counsel, and complex legal procedural rules.

Through the pilot, PB has directly represented 12 individuals; 5 have already been released and provided consultation and support in several other innocence cases. This grant would enable PB to significantly increase its capacity, develop community education campaigns, and establish a sustainable and replicable model for other CIUs.

Date Created: September 28, 2023