KANSAS CITY, Kan. -- Wyandotte County District Attorney Mark Dupree said he was blindsided when he saw the county's proposed budget, and that it did not include funding for a special unit to identify wrongful convictions.
"I got with the commission and told them we have to do something, and many of them back in January were on board saying something needs to be done," Dupree said.
Dupree went again before commissioners Thursday night at their budget meeting, urging them to set aside money for a Conviction Integrity Unit (CIU).
A senior attorney, investigator, and a secretary would make up the CIU, getting help from KU and UMKC law schools to screen cases for legitimate wrongdoing and help exonerate innocent prisoners.
Dupree says he's narrowed down at least 20 cases that have serious grounds for an exoneration.
The CIU would be the first in Kansas and the region.
"Our job is not to just lock people up, but it is to protect the innocent as well," Dupree said.
For full-time staffing, the DA's office would need $302,000 annually. For part-timers, they'd need $162,733 with $7,500 of that going to a one-time "unit prep."
The DA's office can't qualify for any grants to help with funding until they establish a CIU.
The thing is, the Unified Government is dealing with an unexpected $1 million bill that they'll have to figure into the budget to pay for prosecuting the Schlitterbahn case.
Dupree says it's the fault of his predecessor, Jerome Gorman, who had previously determined there was no conflict of interest with Wyandotte County prosecuting the case. Dupree says Gorman then asked Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt to take on the case, as he would be leaving office that January.
"When you request the help, you have to pay for the help," Dupree said.
Dupree says neither he or the U.G. knew about that until a year later when his office got a bill from the AG's office.
"The letter sent out [...] was not in the system; it was purged out of the system. Before I got there, the only thing in the system was Gorman indicating there was no conflict and that our office would be handling the case," Dupree said.
The commission is planning to separate the $1 million in half, spread out over 2018 and 2019.
Dupree said had the case stayed in his office, the commission wouldn't have to deal with a bill as large as $1 million.
It costs around $250,000 per person they have charged in the case, which is four people so far.
Dupree thinks the Schlitterbahn case is why his CIU was cut from the budget.
Mayor David Alvey says it's one thing: "The budget is very tight, as you heard, there's not enough revenues to do everything we want to do."
Going off the outcome of the Lamonte McIntyre case, who spent 23 years in prison for a murder he didn't commit, Dupree says he's confident the commission can find a way.
Commissioners Brian McKiernan, Tom Burroughs, and Harold Johnson were positive about supporting the CIU.
Commissioners Angela Markley and Melissa Bynum asked if the DA's office doesn't use all of the $500,000 in 2019, could they use the rest to fund the CIU?
Dupree said they'd need the funding for the last quarter of 2018.
Alvey said he thinks there is a way.
"I think that the question is going to be what we'll have to give. That's what Administrator Bach will be looking at," said Alvey.
The commission decides on the budget August 2.
"I believe they will send a message, as I have sent a message, that you will be able to receive justice in Wyandotte County regardless of what it costs," said Dupree.
There are 33 CIUs in the United States, more than double than the number in 2013, according to the National Registry of Exonerations (NRE).
In a March 2018 report, the NRE recorded 139 exonerations in 2017, with 42 of those being CIU exonerations.
CIUs have secured 269 exonerations from 2003 to 2017.
Around 84 percent of 2017 CIU exonerations were in Harris County, Texas; Dallas County, Texas; Cook County, Illinois; and Kings County, New York. More than half of them were in Harris County alone.