Working to get the innocent out of jail
Filed by Ben Allen in Feature.
December 13, 2012
This post was written by KOSU’s Quinton Chandler
A law clinic operating out of Oklahoma City University is on a mission to balance the scales for the state’s wrongfully convicted. The Oklahoma City Innocence Project is new to the state but they are just one cog in an older nationwide wheel meant to curb the mistakes of the justice system. But what does it take to prove someone innocent and how do they end up in prison?
“It is stressful at times because you realize that a person’s life is in your hands. That is truly daunting.”
How do you have that conviction to keep on being on call?
“Because I know what its like watching someone spend their life in prison for something they didn’t do. And it continues to happen.”
Professor Tiffany Murphy is head of the Oklahoma Innocence Project that just opened in August of last year. She’s on call 24 hours a day through the entire year mostly because her staff is just her and…
“…a staff attorney, a legal assistant, and along with clinical students from the law school.”
Right now that’s three students from OCU and the legal team tackles as many cases as they can handle.
“The project has had over 500 cases come through its doors. At any given time we have about 80 to 100 cases waiting in line to be reviewed and 12 -16 cases being actively worked up.”
500 cases? Can all of these people be innocent? Probably not, but Tiffany doesn’t take clients at just their word. Her team only focuses on a case if innocence can be proved.
“The cases that I’m working on are certainly very valid cases to be reviewed.”
Dan Grothaus is a private investigator Tiffany uses on occasion. He’s worked innocence cases before and has no illusions about a 100% accurate justice system.
“I think every community should make sure, if they’ve got someone locked up in prison for the rest of their life. They really should want to make sure they’ve got the right guy locked up.”
“Believe me every state has some convictions that are questionable.”
The innocence project believes between 3 and 4% of the country’s non-capital offenders and nearly 2% of death row inmates are innocent. According to Tiffany the wrongfully convicted unsurprisingly tend to have the worst luck.
“Not usually one thing happens but a lot of things happen and its like a perfect storm that leads to a person being wrongfully convicted.”
She says eyewitness testimony is the number one contributor. That’s not to mention false confessions, jail house informants….
“…And systemic problems, ineffective assistance of counsel, police or prosecutorial misconduct. Usually in a case you’re going to have a lot of these things converge.
“We’ll look into the case documentation. The police reports, the investigative reports, the witness statements. And if it doesn’t pass the smell test we’ll continue to look into a case to see if they may have convicted the wrong person.”
Dan says he keeps an eye cocked for those police reports that don’t add up. They may show other suspects who look just as guilty or evidence that doesn’t point to the person serving time.
“If I can’t satisfy myself with the police reports themselves then I know there’s a possibility they maybe took a giant leap of faith and possibly convicted somebody on a hunch.”
That’s not to say police are on a rampage dragging in the wrong people. The legal system is flawed; it’s human so mistakes are bound to happen occasionally. But the project can have a hard time explaining that to the people their second guessing.
“I don’t know of anyone from a prosecutor to a judge to a police officer who wants to convict someone who is innocent. In theory we all agree on that but when it comes down to a specific individual….well in this case we don’t agree with you.”
“I think that they feel, maybe a little bit sensitive, or defensive about their work and yeah maybe that someone is coming up behind them. Probably anybody at any job would feel that way.” “I don’t agree with that, they should be on our side. We should all be on the same side. All we’re trying to do is make sure they got it right.”
No matter what anyone else believes the project will continue fighting for those cases that don’t add up and hope the truth comes out in court. According to the National Registry for Exonerations, to date, over 1000 people have been exonerated. Oklahoma City’s Innocence Project is young with just a little over a year under its belt. So, they haven’t seen their first exoneration, but with time they may get their chance.