Seven years ago, John Eastman cashed a forged $163 check at a bank in Arvada, presenting a stolen driver’s license to the teller.
He was caught and pleaded guilty to identity theft. Because of his extensive criminal history, he was classified as a habitual offender and sentenced to 24 years in prison.
“Frankly, a long time ago Mr. Eastman was thrown away as a human being and never given a chance,” said Jenn Kilpatrick, director of conviction integrity and equity at the First Judicial District Attorney’s Office in Golden. “And that is unfair.”
Kilpatrick is heading the fledgling Conviction Integrity Unit formed this year by newly elected District Attorney Alexis King. The unit is the first in Colorado to consider not only claims of actual innocence — people who say they were wrongly convicted — but also more general claims of inequity or injustice in sentencing, according to the National Registry of Exonerations, which tracks units across the country.
Eastman’s case is the first the unit took on, building on a petition Eastman filed himself from prison last June that asked for a review of his sentence. Kilpatrick worked with Eastman’s defense attorney to convince a judge in February that Eastman’s prison term should be reduced from 24 to 12 years, noting efforts he has made to reform in prison and that his past convictions were almost all low-level financial crimes likely driven by substance abuse.
The new sentence made 56-year-old Eastman immediately eligible for parole; he’s scheduled for a parole hearing this month.
“Prosecutors ultimately should be truth-seekers and justice-seekers, so this aligns with our overall mission,” King said. “I also think that in a time when people are questioning the effectiveness and purpose of prosecutors, that this is a way to, frankly, show that that is our core mission: truth-seeking and making sure that we are advocating for just outcomes.”
The conviction integrity unit in the First Judicial District, which covers Jefferson and Gilpin counties, is the third such effort established in district attorneys’ offices in Colorado, part of a recent nationwide upsurge in such initiatives.
“We’ve seen a huge boom in the past year alone,” said Jessica Weinstock Paredes, a research scholar at the National Registry of Exonerations, which has been tracking conviction review units since 2016. “…The general public, practitioners and lawmakers, voters and members of the judiciary are more and more interested in wrongful convictions and more and more aware of the reality of wrongful conviction and the pitfalls of our justice system than ever before.”
Generally, conviction review units, also called conviction integrity units, are tasked with identifying and correcting wrongful convictions. A growing number are also taking on wider inequities and broader complaints about fairness, Weinstock Paredes said. They are sometimes staffed by prosecutors from within the district attorney’s office, or sometimes headed by former defense attorneys, like Kilpatrick.
“They’re different from innocence organizations in that they’re under the same roof as the prosecutor’s office, so they have the advantages and resources of the prosecutor’s office,” Weinstock Paredes said.
She added that while many new conviction review units have been popping up — it’s often a popular campaign promise — not all go on to produce exonerations or reduced sentences.
“We know that some of these district attorneys are running and using these as buzzwords, and then four years later we don’t see any work out of them,” Weinstock Paredes said.
None of the conviction review units in Colorado have found any claims of wrongful conviction to be credible. The two units outside of the First Judicial District are focused solely on claims of actual innocence.
In the Boulder County District Attorney’s Office, the conviction integrity unit has received 17 applications since it began in 2018, but has not substantiated any claims of innocence, spokeswoman Shannon Carbone said.
In the 18th Judicial District, a volunteer conviction integrity unit looking at wrongful convictions has received 20 applications since 2019, but found none met the criteria to be reviewed, said Vikki Migoya, a spokeswoman for the district attorney’s office.
Kilpatrick said her unit, which consists of her, a part-time intern, a part-time investigator and three support staff who pick up work as they can on top of their regular duties, is currently reviewing eight claims of actual innocence.
When it comes to questions of equity, the unit will review sentences for people who are over the age of 35 and have served at least 15 years in prison, and people who are over the age of 50 and have served 10 years, Kilpatrick said.
The unit additionally will consider reviewing cases where the defendant is serving life without parole for felony murder, is jailed on habitual offender counts — as was the case with Eastman — or is sick or terminally ill, she said.
Any wrongful conviction claim can be reviewed, regardless of the sentence length, Kilpatrick said.
“You could serve five minutes or 50 years, and we’ll look at it,” she said. “Because ultimately if you are a person who didn’t commit a crime, you should have your case reviewed.”
When considering reducing a sentence, Kilpatrick and others in the district attorney’s office reach out to the victims of the crimes to see if they oppose or support a reduction.
“If a victim objects, they are an important factor but not the deciding factor,” Kilpatrick said.
She added the unit thoroughly reviews each case to determine whether a person is “well-positioned” to safely re-enter the community. In Eastman’s case, a parole board will make the final decision.
“Our goal is to do the right thing,” Kilpatrick said. “Right by the community, and right by victims, and right by folks who have been treated inequitably or unfairly in the system.”
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