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The Innocence Project
F rom his cell on death row, Ron Williamson screamed “I am an innocent man. I didn’t kill Debbie Carter,” disturbing the whole cell block. Just five days before he was to be executed, he was found innocent on the basis of DNA testing.
Williamson was exonerated with the help of the Innocence Project, which facilitates the use of DNA testing for prisoners who claim to be innocent. If the DNA findings back their claims, the project works to free them.
The Innocence Project was founded in 1992 by Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld at the Cardozo Law School of Yeshiva University in New York City. It has assisted in about two-thirds of the 131 DNA exonerations in the United States since 1976. Twelve of these were death row cases. The work is done by law students on a voluntary basis under supervision. The professors select 20 students and it is “very competitive,” according to Madeleine Severin, one of the students in the project. Each student serves a one-year term and is given five or six cases.
The first step in the process is for the assistant director of the Innocence Project, Huy Dao, to screen the cases. Prisoners initially send in a summary of the crime. Then they must send whatever documents they have to Dao, who decides if they qualify. In order to be accepted there must theoretically be biological evidence, even if it is not actually available.
The evidence must be blood, semen, saliva, sweat, hair, or skin, which came from the alleged perpetrator at the crime scene. If it is recovered, the cost of the testing is between $1,500 and $4,000. Most rapes would qualify, but less than 10 percent of murders would. Unless there was a struggle, or the attacker had gotten blood or one of the other substances on clothing, there would be nothing to test. (The Innocence Project also helped to found the Innocence Network—a chain of 25 affiliate organizations, which often work on cases where DNA testing is not possible.)
After the initial investigation, the work shifts to the students. They start on an evidence hunt that takes from a few months to four years to finish. Out of the cases accepted, 75 percent have to be abandoned because evidence has been thrown out, altered, or lost.
R on Williamson’s troubles began in 1984 when he was imprisoned in Oklahoma, with a woman named Terri Holland, for passing bad checks. Holland would become a key witness against Williamson at his 1987 trial for rape and murder (which took place in 1982).
Holland’s lies, plus the lies of another snitch, James Harjo, about an alleged accomplice, Dennis Fritz, kept Williamson and Fritz in jail for 11 years, with Fritz serving part of a life sentence and Williamson nearly killed by the state of Oklahoma. At wit’s end, Fritz contacted the Innocence Project.
At that point, Fritz, Williamson, and the students at the Innocence Project came up against one of the most deep-seated and disturbing problems of U.S. jurisprudence: that prisoners have no right to prove their innocence—by DNA or any other means.
On the state level, many laws restrict post-conviction DNA testing to between six months and two years after the person has been convicted. (It can take as much as four years to locate biological evidence.) In response to the flood of exonerations, 28 states have changed their laws concerning DNA testing. Before the law was changed in Virginia, a prisoner had only three weeks from the date of conviction to make a motion to reopen a case on the basis of new evidence. The law now has no time limitations.
The original legislation had suited Chief Justice Rehnquist just fine, since he refused to hear an appeal to the Supreme Court by a man named Walter Snyder. Though Snyder had a good DNA test, he was beyond the three week time limit—the most important factor for Rehnquist. In their book Actual In nocence (2000) , authors Scheck, Neufeld, and Jim Dwyer quote Reinquist: “A claim of actual innocence is not in itself a constitutional claim.” This position, fortunately, is not shared by all the other Supreme Court justices.
it comes to what is happening on the street, the script is a little
different. The average district attorney is under pressure to convict
someone and it looks bad to admit to mistakes by reopening cases.
The rationale is that if the trial is “fair” then the
outcome is acceptable. You have a constitutional right to a fair
trial, but not necessarily a fair outcome.
In the Williamson-Fritz case, the Innocence Project was able to get the DNA testing for Fritz and Williamson. The results vindicated both of them and they were freed in 1999.
I n 60 of the 75 exonerations resulting from DNA testing since the reinstatement of the death penalty in 1976, mistaken identity has been the leading cause of wrongful convictions for all types of crime.
Mistaken identity, combined with suggestive identification by the police, was behind one of Madeleine Severin’s cases. The defendant was Gene Bibbins. The case involved a 13-year-old girl who was raped at knifepoint in 1986 in her house in East Baton Rouge, Louisiana. The rapist also stole a radio.
At first she described her attacker as a black man with long, curly hair and wearing jeans.
“However, the police didn’t write this down,” said Severin. After the victim was shown Bibbins in person, she identified him as her assailant, even though he was wearing shorts and had short hair. “Only then did the police write down a description, which was based on Bibbins.” He was carrying what looked like the broken radio the rapist had stolen. At that point, they showed the girl the stolen radio before they showed her Bibbins.
When Severin got this case, she didn’t have to go on an evidence hunt because “the student who had the case last year located it in a storage facility of the Clerk of the Court’s office in East Baton Rouge.” The DNA tests were done in December 2002. The tests came back exonerating Bibbins, Severin wrote a Motion to Vacate Conviction, which was then signed by her supervising attorney. In March 2003 the district judge in Louisiana signed the motion. At that point, Bibbins had been in jail for 16 years. The victim still maintains that Bibbins was the one who raped her, in spite of two DNA tests that excluded him.
I n the fall of 1986, two women were raped and killed in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. Robert Miller was in the police station when the police asked him if he could help them solve these crimes.
“I can see through the killer’s eyes. I got these powers from my Choctaw grandmother. I dreamed about it one night,” Miller answered. After getting this response, the police took advantage of his fragile mental condition by putting a hidden video camera in the room and taping his talk with them. He seemed to know more about the crime than he should have. They considered this a confession.
During the 1988 trial, Miller denied any involvement in the crime, but the jury believed what they heard on the tape. Later, at the 1996 trial, the judge ruled that there were many factual errors in the tape and many outright denials of involvement. He said that the tape could not be used as primary evidence. Miller was tested in 1996 and found innocent. He was freed in 1999, after being incarcerated on death row for nine years. His experience is not uncommon since the police often prey on the mentally ill or mentally retarded.
In 1981, Jimmy Ray Bromgard was living in Billings, Montana when a little girl was raped in her house. The semen couldn’t be typed and there were no fingerprints that matched Bomgard’s in the house. At the trial, the girl testified that she was only 65 percent sure that it was Bromgard. Instead of making a motion to withhold this identification as unreliable, the defense attorney did nothing. Most of the case for the prosecution rested on an analysis of head and pubic hairs, which proved to be fraudulent.
The defense attorney did not challenge this by hiring experts who would investigate and testify against this false evidence.
According to a letter dated September 30, 2002 from Peter Neufeld to Mike McGrath, attorney general of Montana, he also failed to make an opening statement, even though studies have shown that juries tend to make up their minds after hearing opening statements. He also did not file an appeal after the defendant’s conviction. Bromgard was exonerated in October 2002 after 15 and a half years in jail.
A s part of its activities, the Innocence Project spearheaded legislation called the Innocence Protection Act of 2001. It would have helped the states provide well- trained defense attorneys in capital cases. It would also have ensured access to DNA testing to death row and non-death row inmates who had a reasonable claim. Unfortunately, this legislation never got through Congress.
Actual Innocence gives many examples of reforms and legislation that could minimize the number of wrongful convictions, aside from DNA testing (which acts as a correction not a cure). One example is preventing forensic fraud. The book says that no labs should be under police control. Another problem is with prosecutors’ attitudes, i.e., that such reforms are not likely to be instituted soon, if at all.
Severin sums up the problem with prosecutors: “The job of the prosecutor is to prosecute guilty people. It’s not his [or her] job to defend old, incorrect rulings. There is nothing inconsistent about a prosecutor being tough on crime and the reopening of cases where innocent people have been convicted. No legitimate purpose is served by keeping an innocent person in jail. Fear of the truth is not a good reason to keep someone in prison.”
The Innocence Project will continue to bring justice through the voices and actions of students like Severin, who is dedicated to playing “as much of a role as possible to help innocent people prove their innocence.”
Judith David is a retired librarian. She is a member of New Yorkers Against the Death Penalty and the New York Writers Coalition.
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