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Multnomah County DA’s office hires defense lawyer Ernie Warren to head the Justice Integrity Unit

The founder of the first Black law firm in Oregon will now be working for the prosecution. Defense lawyer Ernie Warren will be running the Justice Integrity Unit for the Multnomah County District Attorney’s office. He’ll be in charge of reviewing old cases with an eye towards wrongful convictions or opportunities to reduce prison time. Warren joins us to talk about his new job.

The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.

Dave Miller:  The Multnomah County District Attorney’s office has a new lawyer and it seems like he has switched sides. Ernie Warren founded the first Black-owned defense law firm in Oregon and for over 30 years he went up against prosecutors from the very office where he now works. But in the press release announcing Warren’s new job, he noted that this is not a departure from his previous role. He says that running the new Justice Integrity Unit where he’ll examine past convictions with an eye towards accountability and fairness, is a kind of continuation of his legal career. Ernie Warren, what did you mean when you said that this is not a departure from your three plus decades as a defense attorney?

Ernie Warren:  Dave, I went hard in the defense of people who were charged with crimes. I’ve had 100 trials. I believe in the truth. I believe in innocence and looking at people who may have been wrongfully convicted that may be exonerated by DNA, looking at excessive sentences is really what I was doing all the time as a one man team and now I have the DA’s office behind me to do the same thing.

Miller: How did this job offer come to be?

Warren:  I believe that in the case of Ramos vs. Louisiana, a decision by the Honourable Justice Gorsuch back in 2020, it viewed Oregon’s unconstitutional practice of allowing people to be convicted by non unanimous decisions.  In fact, Oregon and Louisiana were the only two states in the nation that allowed for this unconstitutional practice. I argued about it for my whole career. And finally on April 20 of 2020, the United States Supreme Court weighed in and said it was unconstitutional.  It’s now retroactive in Oregon to review all of these cases. If you could imagine cases that covered my whole career where people were convicted by non unanimous decisions. I think that’s what led us to revisit how we look at sentencing, how we look at trials altogether.

Miller:  I want to turn back to this big Ramos question, so called Ramos cases that you’re going to be reviewing because it seems like that’s going to be a big part of your job. And if so, what kinds of questions did you ask the District Attorney Mike Schmidt before you accepted this job?

Warren:  Well, exactly. I asked him, ‘would I have the opportunity to actually revisit these types of wrongful convictions and excessive sentence cases’ and he said he would allow me to do that. You know, you can’t change the stripes on the tiger Dave. I’m gonna be the same tiger I was before I took this job and after I take this job.

Miller: How do you describe those stripes? I mean if you’re saying that you’re the same person who was a defense attorney for 30 years what does that mean? Who are you?

Warren:  That means that I’m going to pursue innocence. I’m going to pursue the truth. If you could imagine in my career I’ve had more than two dozen murder cases dismissed and how I did that was not by being vicious but by being nice and charming. So what I do is I work not only with my own investigation team and my group of experts to get to the truth of the matter.

For example, a few years ago I had a murder case and I was telling the Multnomah County D A’s office that my client was innocent. ‘You got the wrong guy.’ But yet we went through the whole process. You don’t have a right to be released from custody when you’re charged with murder, you only have a right to a bail hearing. The bail hearing is denied. My client is wrongfully accused. He’s in jail for over a year pending trial. During that time we investigate the case. We find out at the time of the murder my client was actually at his landlord’s doorstep.

We find a surveillance video that shows who the other true murderers are. We turn this over in collaboration to the DA’s office to the detectives. We proved the timeline. My client, of his own volition, is willing to cooperate in bringing the true killers to custody. And then a year later, this poor guy - the case is dismissed and he’s released from custody. And so the whole time I’m fighting saying, ‘look, you got the wrong guy’ and I’m not doing that belligerently or name callingly, I’m doing it as nice and charming as I can because that’s what our professional rules of ethics require of us as attorneys.

Miller:   The AP reported recently that there was previously a Conviction Integrity Unit in the Multnomah County DA’s Office. How is this new Justice Integrity Unit that you’re going to be in charge of going to be different?

Warren:  I believe it’s gonna be different not only [because of] the Ramos decision but before that time they had no reason to look at prior convictions. They only looked at post conviction relief cases, clemency cases from the Governor and probably parole cases coming out of prison.   In this case, we also have a new Oregon SB 819 [relating to petitions for conviction reconsideration] that takes effect January 1, 2022 allowing the DAs to go in and jointly, with the defense attorneys, to petition the court if they feel that someone has been wrongfully convicted, that there’s an excessive sentence or if the reasons for this excessive sentence have changed over time. Primarily, these excessive sentences, unfortunately, in my experience in my opinion, have affected people of color disproportionately. And so for that reason, I think it’s going to be different from the way that they had historically done business.

Miller:  So are you [or your office] going to be reviewing every single non unanimous jury conviction stemming from Multnomah County cases over the last 30 or 40 years?

Warren:  Thank you for asking that question. I’m not quite sure in my second week here on the job exactly what I’m gonna do. But I do believe many of those non unanimous decisions are going to come back for review.

Miller:  Do you have a ballpark sense for even how many there are?  I remember numbers being tossed around in previous years because this case, before it got to the Supreme Court, was bouncing around for a while.  I remember hearing the word thousands. That was a statewide number, but as the largest county in the State, I imagine a big chunk would be in Multnomah County.

Warren:  No doubt there’re going to be thousands in Multnomah County. And we have to really take that into perspective. So the Oregon Supreme Court reviewed how we would look at these cases and they made it retroactive, which means we’re gonna look at all the cases back as far as time can go, if someone is still serving a sentence.  But it said even though we have a 10-2 or 11-1 [jury decision] reason to look at cases, if a jury reached a unanimous decision on a case, those won’t be the cases that we’ll be looking at.

Miller:  Unless I imagine there are other reasons why you might want to look into a conviction, right? The non unanimous jury a 10-2 or 11-1 is just one of the possible reasons that you might find that justice was not served?

Warren:  That’s correct. You know over time many people come forward and they confess to the fact that they were the actual perpetrator of a crime. There’s also our science. Thirty years ago [science] was nowhere near what it is today. In fact when I was in law school 35 years ago, we were just really understanding what DNA evidence might look like. And now it’s really grown to something that can be very specific and really helpful in law enforcement. And unfortunately, witnesses misidentify who the real perpetrator of the crime is. You might have heard about the case of the Central Park Five. That was a horrible case where a misidentification of five young people of color were facing life sentences. And now, 30 years later, they have been totally exonerated.

Miller:  I’ve read, and correct me if I’m wrong, but the full staffing for this new unit is something like 2.5 people. So does that mean you and another 1.5 full-time-equivalent positions? That’s the entirety of this unit?

Warren:  At this point. Hopefully everyone in the budgeting process will catch up to understand how overwhelming this task can be. But fortunately for me as a criminal defense lawyer, that’s what I faced in all of my prior representations. And still you give 100% and you go hard until you can reach that place of truth and justice.

Miller:  Although it does seem, just in terms of sheer people power, that that’s going to severely limit the number of cases you’ll be able to look into in any given year. What’s your ballpark figure for the number of cases you can really dig into?

Warren:  It’s again, you know, my second week of working here.  It’s hard to really determine, but I hope to set up something as we go where we can really look at some of the cases and try to prioritize them in some way. But at this time we don’t have any policies for how that’s going to look. There are many people that you have to [consider] when you make these decisions. You certainly have to look at people that might be considered victims. You have to look at the witnesses. Maybe there was a jury trial and we have transcripts of the proceedings. We certainly have to look at the scientific evidence again and we have to get independent investigation of what was really going on.

Miller:  It seems to me that everything we’ve been talking about so far has been really retrospective - looking at earlier cases, whether they’re non unanimous juries or some other problem and trying to bring justice where there maybe has been injustice. Will you have any ability or inclination to weigh in on new cases?

Warren:  I think so. I believe that process, from my standpoint as a defense attorney, I always weighed in on every case. I never allowed the DA or a United States attorney just to give me an offer. It was always my custom to negotiate the offers to look to do a deeper dive into the details. Actually people in this office have come up to me and asked me about ways of looking at prosecutions and I’ve been brutally honest with them.

Miller:  Can you give us an example? I’m curious about the kind of advice that prosecutors have sought and what you’ve said ?

Warren:  Yes, for example, I’ve been approached by a deputy District Attorney regarding looking at bias prosecutions that could be racial/gender bias prosecutions. Many times, there are still only misdemeanor cases but asking me on how we should look at that. I particularly think that racial bias in any form is a real bad thing and should be really a felony. But that’s up to our politicians to make that happen. I think that we should go a little bit harder on bias prosecutions, but that’s my opinion. Ultimately, those decisions are going to be made by Michael Schmidt.

Miller:  A couple times in answer to my questions you said ‘this is my second week here and we’ll see how things go’. But I’m curious if we talk a year from now, how will you judge whether that first year has been a success?

Warren:  Thank you for asking. I can tell you, I’ve been looking at cases in my first week and I’ve been doing a deeper dive into what the case is all about. I think if we have identified cases that were either a wrongful conviction or an excessive sentence and we’ve petitioned a court and asked for the appropriate justice to be made, I think the number of those cases will be the ones that show how well we’ve done and should be our accountability test. And if you’re open to invite me back a year now I’ll certainly accept and make myself accountable.

Miller:  Let’s do that, Ernie Warren, Senior Deputy District Attorney in charge of the Multnomah County District Attorney’s Office’s new Justice Integrity Unit.

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Sage Van Wing