It 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.
A peer-reviewed, statistically-validated study concluded that at least 4.1 percent of defendants sentenced to death in the United States are innocent.”
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.
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.
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