California Innocence Project harnesses generative AI for work to free wrongfully convicted

Since ChatGPT was released in November, generative AI’s dangers and risks have dominated coverage, with tech CEOs and experts, including OpenAI founder Sam Altman and Bill Gates, warning AI poses an existential threat. But for some access-to-justice advocates, it’s clear how legal aid organizations can use the tech to better serve people without easy access to legal services.

More than 90% of Americans get no or not enough help for legal problems related to basic needs such as housing, education, health care, income and safety, according to a 2022 Justice Gap report by the Legal Services Corporation.

The California Innocence Project has a full-time staff of only 10, and with interns and clinic students, it usually has between 25 to 30 people working on its cases. The group screens between 800 and 1000 cases each year and reviews police reports, court filings and trial transcripts; it also investigates about 150 cases and actively litigates up to 60 cases annually. The work is painstaking.

According to the National Registry of Exonerations 2022 Annual Report, there had been 3,284 exonerations in the United States since 1989. The registry recorded 233 exonerations in 2022, with those wrongfully convicted each spending an average of 9.6 years in prison, a total of 2,245 years. According to the report, innocence groups and conviction integrity units at prosecutors’ offices were responsible for 171 exonerations, or 74% of the total number.

During his time at the California Innocence Project, (then-managing attorney) Michael Semanchik beta-tested Casetext’s AI legal assistant, CoCounsel, before its March release and saw the potential to save hours. Using CoCounsel to draft emails and memos and for legal research, Semanchik was impressed by how quickly the technology can identify patterns in legal documents for several of the group’s ongoing cases, including inconsistencies in witness statements. As the technology evolves, he hopes it can be used to draw out cases with the strongest evidence of innocence.

CoCounsel helped Semanchik narrow his focus on issues he commonly sees, such as witness misidentification, in wrongful conviction cases. It also helped him comb through documents in databases he set up for several of the group’s ongoing cases to identify inconsistencies in witness statements or testimony.

Semanchik says the technology isn’t at a place where it can review a case at the intake stage to determine the strength of new evidence, but he believes that in the future the technology could be most valuable at the case review stage when the group decides which prisoners in Southern California have new and compelling evidence.

Source: ABA Journal



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