The Innocence Conference Network Meeting 2008
By Jeff Deskovic
There is a group of approximately forty organizations across the country which are dedicated to freeing the wrongfully convicted. Many of their names contain the words “Innocence Project”, along with an adjective describing their geography, although some do not. Examples are “ The California Innocence Project” and “ The Georgia Innocence Project”. The granddaddy of them all is the organization located in Manhattan, co-founded by Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld, known merely as The Innocence Project.
Although the other groups have the words “Innocence Project” in their name, they are entirely separate legal entities from The Innocence Project, and have different founders, board members, staff etc. Often The Innocence Project has served as a model which is emulated, from organizational structure, to daily operation, to various The Innocence Conference Network Meeting 2008 techniques.
For some years now, the organizations have come together for a three day conference. The purpose of the conference is to hold classes in which tips, techniques, and ideas are shared, as well as to facilitate networking. Those who may be considering starting new innocence projects are permitted to attend, as were several law students. There are also classes offered for exonerees pertaining to readjusting to society
and reintegrating. The conference also has a social element to it in that the busy individuals who work in different states attempting to obtaining the freedom of the wrongfully convicted often enjoy seeing familiar faces which they may not have seen for a year or more.
To facilitate that aspect, breakfast, lunch, and dinners are served in a large area capable of accomodating most everyone for the purpose of
mingling. Last year’s conference was held in March at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. At that point I had only been free for less than six months, and, although a “newbie” in terms of my freedom, I nevertheless decided to drive there, rather than car pool, because my plans involved some lobbying activity.
This year’s conference was being held in San Jose, California, and naturally driving was not a practical option. Because I have been involved in starting up a foundation with objectives similar to the Innocence Project I very much wanted to attend and learn all that I might. Fortunately, for me, Sam Zherka, publisher of The Westchester Guardian, offered to finance the trip. I was accompanied by my friend and
manager of my public speaking engagements, Darren Wilkins, who wanted to be sure that all went well.
Because my goal was to learn as much as I could in hopes of starting a new organization, I opted to attend the classes offered to professionals rather than those for exonerees. While I was at the conference I learned that there were different models of Innocence Projects. The New England Innocence Project, for example, consists solely of a huge law firm that was so successful and so wealthy, that they decided to give back to society by creating their own Innocence Project within their law firm.
Some projects only take DNA cases, whereas others take on non-DNA cases, and seek to clear their clients through means such as finding new evidence, uncovering information withheld from defense lawyers, and eyewitness identfication recantations. Then there are other projects which take on both types of cases, those which principally involve DNA and those in which DNA is not a factor. Such organizations frequently involve journalism students who follow up correspondence from prisoners in an attempt to find evidence
of innocence. There was some discussion of specific types of cases which involve arson, fingerprinting, and forensic evidence.
I was surprised to discover that The Georgia Innocence Project consists of only two full-time staff people and one part-time, as compared with The Innocence Project in Manhattan, where more than thirty people are employed. Each of the groups I encountered was
concerned not only with exonerating the innocent, but also working towards systemic reforms. I learned a lot about working with the media, methods of raising money, case intake, and the launching of projects. Because I made a point of attending the professional classes, I met many individuals whose lives are dedicated to helping to clear the wrongfully convicted. Meeting them in person further intensified my own desire to help clear wrongfully convicted people. I met many people who are pioneers in the field. Larry Marshall, who founded The Center On Wrongful Convictions, delivered a speech the second night of the conference in which he expressed amazement with the growth of the Innocence movement. He recalled a time when everybody in the movement could have fit into his living room for pizza
Justin Brooks, who has helped many Innocence Projects get off the ground, including ones in Chile, Hawaii, and California, spoke about how
expensive the work can be. Although he would like to focus on simply freeing the wrongfully convicted, out of necessity he has to also
be involved in raising money. He spoke of a prior case in which his California group ran out of money at a point at which they were close to proving the innocence of a client, and how he and other staff members had to resort to using their own funds to finance the case they ultimately won. He and his staff took their dedication to that client to a whole new level.
He also added his encouragement to those considering starting an innocence project to take non-DNA cases along with DNA cases, because DNA is only available in about 10% of all serious felony cases. Brooks also indicated that he felt it was important for projects to continue to try to help in getting criminal justice reforms passed in order to prevent wrongful convictions in the first place. Dr. Edward Blake, who performs DNA tests which have cleared many exonerees, was given an award for his work. In a really dramatic moment, he was brought on stage in the presence of several exonerees who had been proven innocent by his DNA testing. Each exoneree briefly related how much time
they had served and spoke briefly about the circumstances of their case and how Blake’s testing proved their innocence.
Blake, who is well versed on the subject of wrongful conviction, made an impassioned speech in which he pointed out that in many wrongful conviction cases it is not merely a mistake that has been made, but rather intentional misconduct. Fabrication, combined with tunnel vision, and wanting to simply close a case, not to mention medical examiners and others working backward in the ‘tell me what you want to prove, and I will prove it’ mode frequently causing wrongful convictions. He urged the passage of legislation with criminal penalties for those who engage in such tactics.
Blake pointed out that merely bringing a civil case is inadequate because it does not punish the bad actors even as the exonerees were punished wrongfully with incarceration. He indicated that without financial and incarcerative punishment the net effect would be no
deterrence and, that even when lawsuits are won, often municipalities and states pay the money awarded; rendering the guilty individuals free to pay nothing out of pocket. The net effect was no deterrence. His statements brought a round of applause. I found myself clearly in agreement with him, and realized that this was a common sense, yet revolutionary, thought which has yet to take hold, but one that must.
Also recognized, and honored with an award, was Dr. Keel for his extensive efforts in the field. David Shephard, an exoneree from New Jersey who served ten years for rape based on a voice misidentification, along with general misidentification, presented the awards to
each doctor. More than 70 exonerees attended the conference. I had the pleasure of meeting and speaking with many of them. I will share a few of their experiences which, hopefully, are illustrative. Jerry Miller, of Illinois, the 200th individual exonerated by DNA, who
served 24½ years based on misidentifi-cation, was in attendance. His exoneration had occurred, as if in a moment of cosmic irony, just a few days before the first annual fund raising dinner of The Innocence Project last year. One day he was on parole as a registered sex offender,
the next day he was told that he had been cleared and was invited to fly to New York to attend the event. Alan Crotzer, of Florida, served
24½ years for Sexual Battery, Kidnapping, Burglary, Aggravated Assault, Robbery, and Attempted Robbery, having been sentenced to 130 years. Misidentification and limited science consisting of blood typing and hair comparison tests, caused his wrongful conviction. Five victims made in-court identifications of Crotzer. Additionally, one of his alleged co-defendants elected to represent himself and presented
a consent defense while Crotzer maintained that he was never there, never participated in any of the crimes, and had no knowledge of them.
Realizing how his defense might look to the jury, he sought to have a separate trial, but the judge refused. DNA cleared him on Jan 23rd, 2006. Also in attendance were Kennedy Brewer and Justin Brooks, recently exonerated and written about several times in The Guardian. Readers will recall that they had served 15 years based upon junk science and prosecutorial misconduct in Mississippi. Kevin Green was a former Marine who served 15½ years for murder in California based upon misidentification. He told me that but for his wrongful conviction he would have received an honorable discharge and would be receiving a pension. Nevertheless, although he has been cleared, the Marines
have not given him his pension. Ray Krone had been wrongfully convicted of murder in Arizona, based on alleged “bite mark evidence”. In his first trial he was sentenced to death. Having won an appeal and gotten a new trial, he was again wrongfully convicted, this time being sentenced to Life In Prison because the presiding judge expressed doubts about his guilt. He had been honorably discharged from the military and had worked for seven years as a mailman before being wrongfully convicted. He served 10 years before finally being cleared by DNA.
Frederic Saeker was wrongfully convicted in Wisconsin, based upon a false confession. He served six years. Curtis McCarty was exonerated in 2007 after serving 21 years, including nearly 18 years on Death Row, for a 1982 Oklahoma City murder he did not commit. McCarty was onvicted twice, and sentenced to death three times, based on prosecutorial misconduct and testimony from forensic analyst Joyce Gilchrist, whose lab misconduct has contributed to at least two other convictions also overturned by DNA. I was very happy to meet Dwayne Dail in person, who I had had phone contact with, as well as his sister. They invited me to visit them in Florida this summer. Dail spent 19 years in prison for rape based upon misidentification. Cy Green had a relationship with Win Wahrer who worked with AIDWYC, an innocence project based in Canada, similar to the relationship that I had with Claudia Whitman of the Innocence Project. Because her Canadian agency had no license to work in the United States, and because she was convinced of Cy’s innocence, she prevailed upon New York lawyer Melvin Beldock, who agreed to take his case pro bono, and ultimately proved him innocent of the murder in Brooklyn that he had been wrongfully convicted of. Kenneth Marsh, of California, was wrongfully convicted of killing his girlfriend’s son. While babysitting the child, Marsh walked out of the room, heard a crash, and ran back to find the baby on the floor. He served 21 years in a California prison before being
cleared. His girlfriend always believed in Marsh’s innocence, and stuck by him the entire time.
I was most moved by Willie Green, who had been cleared just five days before the conference. Willie had been wrongfully convicted of murder, in California, and had served 25 years in San Quentin prison. He had actually been sentenced to death, but the sentence was commuted after 18 months to Life In Prison. Approximately 23 years, four months, and however many days later his entire conviction was reversed as he had been proven innocent. His wife, whom he had met through another prisoner who subsequently passed away, also attended the conference. According to Willie, she had played an important part in keeping him going. He said that all of his immediate family had passed away while he was incarcerated. Michael Green, who had served 13 years in Ohio for rape based on misidentification and forensic science misconduct, had made a settlement with Ohio officials in his compensation case that included the bringing of an independent agency into Ohio for the purpose of reviewing other cases.
I had lunch with several exonerees. We all shared short summaries of our cases and how much time we had served. Sadly, most of those with whom I spoke had served in excess of twenty years. By comparison, I felt like a baby having been locked up for only 16 years. There were times that I felt like crying listening to their stories, because I knew, only too well, what wrongful incarceration does to people.
Wrongful convictions are very real. The count is now up to 215 DNA-exposed wrongful convictions. It can literally happen to anyone, anywhere, at any time, taking an incalculable toll on those wrongfully imprisoned, their families, and our society.