Exonerating the wrongly-convicted should be a shared priority (Guest Post: Lawrence Hellman)

Lawrence K. Hellman is Dean Emeritus and Professor of Law at Oklahoma City University School of Law. He serves as executive director of The Oklahoma Innocence Project.

innocence projectIt is no longer contestable: innocent people sometimes get convicted of serious crimes. How often? No one knows. But this we do know: since 1989, more than 1,400 people have been released from prisons in America based on evidence of innocence. Twenty-eight of these exonerations occurred in Oklahoma, including 7 people who had been sentenced to death.

A peer-reviewed, statistically-validated study published this year in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences concludes that at least 4.1 percent of defendants sentenced to death in the United States are innocent. The percentage of wrongful convictions for non-capital offenses may be even higher.

More than 26,000 people are currently incarcerated in Oklahoma. If “only” 2 percent of them are innocent of the crimes for which they were convicted, more than 500 inmates deserve to be exonerated and returned to freedom.

The Oklahoma Innocence Project at Oklahoma City University School of Law began operations in August 2011. Its mission is to identify and rectify wrongful convictions in Oklahoma. So far, more than 1,000 prison inmates have asked the Project to review their cases. Because of limited resources, hundreds of these requests still await their initial review. Still, several dozen cases have been found to warrant close investigation, and petitions for post-conviction relief have been filed in two cases.

[pullquote]A peer-reviewed, statistically-validated study concluded that at least 4.1 percent of defendants sentenced to death in the United States are innocent.”[/pullquote]In July 2013, the Project filed a petition (since amended) in Pontotoc County District Court on behalf of Karl Fontenot, who was convicted there in 1985 for the murder of Donna Denice Haraway. The petition is based on newly discovered evidence of innocence and raises issues that are all too common in wrongful conviction cases: misconduct on the part of investigators and prosecutors, failure to follow alternative leads, a false confession, and ineffective assistance of defense counsel at trial. The State’s response was not filed until September 2014.  A motion for summary judgment on behalf of Mr. Fontenot is now before the court.

In February 2014, a brief for post-conviction relief was filed in Tulsa County District Court on behalf of Malcolm Scott, who was convicted for the 1994 drive-by murder of Karen Summers. This case is also based on newly discovered evidence of innocence, including statements from three individuals who admit to having been involved in the murder. It alleges that false testimony implicating Scott was knowingly presented by prosecutors, while exculpatory evidence was improperly withheld from defense counsel. An evidentiary hearing is this case is expected in January.

Exoneration cases move slowly, and they are expensive. Investigation and litigation costs can be significant, expert witnesses require compensation, and forensic tests are costly. The Project has more meritorious cases in the pipeline, but resource limitations slow the pace at which they can be filed. The Oklahoma Innocence Project is funded 100 percent by private gifts and grants.

Michael Phillips spent 12 years in prison before Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins proved his innocence.
Michael Phillips spent 12 years in prison before Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins proved his innocence.

The Oklahoma Innocence Project should not be the only institution seeking to free innocent people who are in Oklahoma’s prisons. In several states, prosecutors are taking the initiative to review old convictions to see if mistakes were made in them. In Texas, Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins is a national model. His conviction integrity unit is responsible for initiating more than 30 exonerations.

Why should prosecutors share the Innocence Project’s desire to exonerate innocent people who are in prison? Consider this: when an innocent person is in prison for a crime committed by someone else, the truly guilty person has not been brought to justice; rather, he or she remains at large, posing a threat to the community. There are dozens of cases where such threats have not been merely theoretical. But Oklahoma district attorneys have limited resources, and they make prosecuting new crimes their priority.

In 2008, the American Bar Association amended its model ethics rules to require prosecutors to seek to remedy wrongful convictions under certain circumstances. The Oklahoma Supreme Court has adopted most of the ABA’s recommended ethics rules, but this one has not yet been put into force. A watered-down version of the new ABA rule is under consideration by the Oklahoma Bar Association for possible recommendation to the state Supreme Court next year.

And so, the Oklahoma Innocence Project remains the only entity in Oklahoma seeking to exonerate the innocent in our prisons.

Those who would like to assist the Project financially can call Assistant Dean for Advancement Joshua Snavely at (405) 208-7101 or click here, select “please restrict my gift to a specific fund,” and choose “Innocence Clinic” from the dropdown menu.

The opinions stated above are not necessarily those of OK Policy, its staff, or its board. This blog is a venue to help promote the discussion of ideas from various points of view and we invite your comments and contributions. To see our guidelines for blog submissions, click here

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The opinions stated in guest articles are not necessarily those of OK Policy, its staff, or its board. To see our guidelines for blog submissions, click here.

3 thoughts on “Exonerating the wrongly-convicted should be a shared priority (Guest Post: Lawrence Hellman)

  1. My name is Edith Lockridge,I am the Aunt of DeMarchoe Carpenter and I would like to take this time to personally thank you for helping my nephew and Malcolm Scott.For years no one wanted to believe that the above mentioned were worthy of being innocent other than family and friends. My Mother De’Marchoe’s Grandmother stated 2 days before she died February 22nd 2014 that De’Marchoe would be coming home although she would not be here to see it but an angel was going to help and it appeared to me and my family that you all are the angels that Mother spoke about. Thanks from the Carpenter Family and I know it’s safe to to say From the Scott Family as well God Bless

  2. I’m writing to you because I’m in desperate need of help I’m the niece of Billy Gene Marshall 11 years ago he was wrongfully convicted of two crimes he didn’t commit. I just recently had found him through the computer data base. some unknown reason they kept moving him around. I have lost so many years with my uncle that it truly breaks my heart. I went to every court date and trail accept for the final last court date. please help me free him. I have miss him so much. during his trial and tribulations there was no witness came forward and pointed a finger at him that clearly states he did any wrong doing. please I beg of you on my uncle behalf and mine please help us. clear his name and set him free we truly will appreciate if someone can help us.

  3. Ms Laura I’m saddened to hear about your Uncle word of encouragement please don’t give up nor give in my nephew along with his child hood friend spent 20 long years from family and friends but the innocent program attorney’s helped with their case so please try to reach out to them I pray for the best for your Uncle as well as for you trust and believe in God almighty Edith Lockridge

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