Much of the attention following a reversal of a defendant’s wrongful conviction focuses on the role that police, prosecutors or judges played in perpetuating the injustice. To the extent the defense attorney is considered, it is limited to claims of ineffective assistance of counsel. A more complete story about each reversal would include a description of how each of the components of the criminal process failed to work cohesively in a manner to maintain systemic integrity and protect human life and liberty.
The medical, military, and aviation sectors have adopted sentinel event reviews to broadly examine the behaviors and actions that took part in any event that leads to loss of life for or physical harm to those who use their services. Perhaps due to its adversarial underpinnings and lack of will from the entities that initiate criminal charges, the criminal justice system has yet to adopt similar large-scale reviews. This Article challenges the conventional wisdom that a sentinel event review of a wrongful conviction should center upon the policing or prosecutorial function. Instead, it provides a normative vision of how sentinel event reviews should occur within the public defender itself.
The public defender assigned to a case has much to learn from a reversal - whether the reversal occurred because a defense attorney tasked with providing effective assistance of counsel fell short of their constitutional obligation, a prosecutor failed in their duty to perform as a minister of justice, or if unrealized evidence eventually shows that a defendant was convicted despite being factually innocent. By adopting a thorough and meaningful method of reflecting upon its own role in allowing or contributing to such miscarriages of justice, the public defender would move more clearly in the direction of other entities tasked with protecting significant populations when those receiving the services have limited knowledge of how services should be rendered.
Each defendant’s reversal has its own unique facts and story, and any review of public defender action or inaction would necessarily include larger discussions about the state of public defender resourcing. Collectively, however, reversals provide a lens in which to explore how brittle the defense function is in terms of learning from its failures and growing in its ability to represent defendants effectively and ethically. Indeed, by engaging in this sort of learning project, the public defender centers itself in criminal justice reform conversations by ceasing to simply be a reactive entity left to the whims of whether other system actors seek to improve.