"It's the responsible thing to do," said Lisa Weinreb, one of two deputy district attorneys coordinating the project. "Prosecutors are out there in a search for truth."
San Diego prosecutors, who were presenting their plan to a Justice Department conference Thursday in Washington, expect it to take about a year to review some 560 convictions from before 1992, when authorities began regularly testing suspects' DNA. Each new test costs around $5,000.
Defense lawyers praised the effort, which they hope will encourage prosecutors and state legislatures around the country to improve access to evidence and DNA testing for inmates.
"It's long overdue," said Barry Scheck, co-founder of the Innocence Project, which helps inmates challenge their convictions. "Every time you convict an innocent person, a guilty person is out there committing more crimes and has to be stopped."
What's also unusual is that defense lawyers usually find they are fighting prosecutors to conduct the tests, said Jackie McMurtrie, co-founder of Innocence Project Northwest in Washington state.
Nationally, DNA evidence has been used to successfully challenge 69 convictions since the invention of forensic DNA testing in the late 1980s, Sheck said.
So far, prosecutors in San Diego have reviewed 36 convictions and found only one that meets the criteria for further review and possible DNA testing. Weinreb, who declined to provide details about the single case, said it's too early to say whether anyone will be exonerated.
San Diego County District Attorney Paul Pfingst presented the project last month to the annual meeting of the California District Attorney's Association and there was interest and support for such efforts in Orange and Riverside counties.
"Five thousand dollars is not a significant amount of money to determine the guilt or innocence of an individual," said Randy Tagami, assistant district attorney for Riverside County.
San Diego prosecutors hope to prevent cases like that of Frederick Daye, who served 10 years of a life sentence before DNA evidence proved he was innocent of robbery, rape and kidnapping charges.
A jury convicted him largely on eyewitness testimony and his shaky alibi. All along Daye maintained his innocence, but that was proven only after his attorney obtained a DNA test that was not available in 1984, the time of his arrest.
"It just showed us that we have to carefully look at our cases to make sure that doesn't happen again," Weinreb said. "It was very much a learning experience for us."