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Conviction Review Unit examines hundreds of serious and violent felony convictions

Local man receives chance at new trial due to CRU
Posted: 4:06 PM, Nov 07, 2018
Updated: 2018-11-08 06:17:07Z

SAN DIEGO (KGTV) - Hundreds of criminal cases are being examined and reviewed to make sure prosecutors got the right result. 

That mission is part of the San Diego County District Attorney’s Conviction Review Unit. The unit has been around for about two and a half years, but there are new visible results of its work.

Investigators say Donnell Fulcher shot and killed Roberto Rodriguez shortly after midnight on September 10, 2006.

Rodriguez’s pregnant girlfriend was wounded but survived. According to court records, investigators connected Fulcher to the scene in part through DNA evidence found on a glove. Fulcher has always maintained his innocence. “

We argued that he was not involved at all,” said his defense attorney, Knut Johnson. “There was also in my view, evidence of some other people who are very likely candidates for people who might have committed this crime.”

Because of changes in the way DNA is now analyzed, Fulcher got what most defendants will never see—a chance at a new trial.

“The prosecutor’s role is to ensure justice before, during, and after trial. This unit is just another way we can fulfill that mission,” said Bryn Kirvin, the deputy district attorney who leads the conviction review unit. 

Part of their efforts went into looking at all cases where there could be DNA mixtures, meaning more than one DNA profile in a sample.

That’s because guidelines by SWGDAM (Scientific Working Group on DNA Analysis Methods) changed the way they interpreted DNA. 

“They decided [they wanted] to take a more conservative, a more cautious view when analyzing low-level mixtures,” Kirvin said.

According to the District Attorney’s office, approximately 1,525 defendants were tried to jury verdict between 2003 to 2016 for serious or violent crimes. Most did not involve DNA, but in 351 cases, DNA was used at trial.

Of those, 254 defendants’ cases involved mixtures. That included Fulcher’s case. Team 10 was in court on October 29th when Fulcher chose to plead guilty to voluntary manslaughter and assault with a firearm, instead of going through another trial.

The judge sentence Fulcher to 14 years, but he received credit for time already served. He has since been released.

Prosecutors with the unit did not talk specifically about Fulcher, but emphasized their mission of finding justice. 

“Anything about the case that gives us doubt that we lose our confidence in the conviction, we shouldn’t be afraid to act. We should be running to the courthouse to act,” said Deputy DA Brent Neck who also works with the conviction review unit.

In Fulcher’s case, prosecutor Hector Jimenez still believes they got the right individual. “We still believe that we have the right guy, but we lost confidence in the conviction, so we wanted to give the defendant a chance to have a new trial if he wanted,” he told Team 10 on October 29.

“He chose to plead guilty instead, so at the end of the day, I believe justice was done.” Anyone can apply to get a conviction reviewed, but there are guidelines.

The conviction must have happened in San Diego County Superior Court, the person must still be in custody, and the conviction must be for a violent or serious felony.

There must also be some type of credible evidence of innocence. “It doesn’t matter how old the case is. We’re going to be willing to go back and look and make sure that we got it right,” Kirvin said.