In 2018, Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner established the Philadelphia Conviction Integrity Unit (CIU) in his office—a unit set up by Krasner to investigate claims of innocence and wrongful convictions. Krasner’s CIU has exonerated twenty-two wrongfully convicted persons.
According to the National Registry of Exonerations, there are roughly 86 CIUs in district attorneys’ offices in more than 3,000 counties across the nation—39 of which have exonerated wrongfully convicted persons. The Texas Tribune reported in March 2016 that Texas has 24 county CIUs, and as of April 2019 those units were responsible for 16 of the state’s 363 exonerations as of May 2020.
The latest exoneration by Krasner’s CIU is Curtis Grosland.
Three Decades in Prison for Murder He Did Not Commit
The 60-year-old Black American man who, according to CNN, spent more than three decades in the Pennsylvania prison system for a second-degree murder he did not commit. Grosland’s conviction was overturned in June after the three witnesses who testified against him recanted their testimony.
CNN reported that documents that would have acquitted Grosland were in files of both the district attorney’s office and the Philadelphia Police Department but had been suppressed during his three-decade wrongful imprisonment. Grosland was convicted of a murder that occurred in 1984, but did not become a suspect in the killing until 1987. He was convicted in 1991.
The case against Grosland was based primarily on two witnesses: a jailhouse snitch and a woman who testified she overheard Grosland and others talking about the killing. Both witnesses later recanted.
Frame-up Leads to Wrongful Conviction
The framing of Grosland infuriated D.A. Krasner.
In a June 2021 CIU report, Krasner stated:
“In my view, the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office and the Philadelphia Police Department have historically violated their sworn oaths to uphold the Constitution, seek justice, and protect and serve Philadelphians. Too often, they engaged in and tolerated horrendous abuses of power. Numerous police officers coerced confessions through physical abuse, verbal threats, and violations of constitutional rights. Meanwhile, a fair number of Philadelphia prosecutors, driven by a win-at-all cost office culture, covered for or participated in these abuses. At the same time, the District Attorney’s Office sought excessively long, harsh in almost every case, often with little appreciation or understanding of the person’s individual culpability or the sentence’s frequently negative impact on public safety.”
System Worked As Designed
That is a tragic indictment of single large city’s criminal justice system—a system that callously cost Curtis Grosland more than 30 years of his life. In response, Grosland said the “system” is “broke” incapable to treating “poor, indigent men” equally.
Maintaining his innocence from the day of his arrest, Grosland told CNN that he went to court every single year of his incarceration.
“I don’t think I ever had a full night’s sleep, but I always told myself the day I’m exonerated I’m going to get my full night’s sleep,” he told the cable news network.
The victim’s son, Charles Heo, said he believed that racism played a significant role in Grosland’s conviction and that he is “happy” about his exoneration. Heo added that he believes the prosecutor who secured Grosland’s wrongful conviction was also racially biased against his family.
“I think the prosecutor took advantage of my mom’s inability of understanding all the complications of the legal matter,” Heo charged. “They didn’t feel responsible to explain all the legal details to us … There was no translator during court proceedings, they were using Latin words. I don’t know what was being said. I didn’t have a phone with Google, a lot of things slipped by.”
Of course, the Philadelphia Police Department didn’t have any comment about its handling of the Grosland case.
Criminal Justice System Saturated with Systemic Racism
Claudia Flores, Grosland’s current attorney who is seeking civil damages for her client’s wrongful imprisonment, sent this message to the police department:
“Most people serving life in prison without parole in Pennsylvania are Black men. Probably most of these police officers involved are white. It’s a system saturated with systemic racism at every step. From the way crimes are investigated, to jury selection, to the fact that most prosecutors and judges are white.”
We could not have said it any better.